Whenever I see a Slow Children at Play sign, I picture kids running in slow motion and I make a comment about children playing deliberately and my wife rolls her eyes. I’m just glad the idea is still alive. Children playing I mean, alone, away from adults, preferably not on streets but near streams of water or in the woods.
Brian Kaller writes of this idea of how children have flourished in the outdoor spaces claimed as their own, in an article called, The End of Childhood Play Front Porch Republic January 6, 2021 “Recorded history is the history of adults–generals, statesmen, explorers and scientists–but all of those adults began their path as children. And running beneath this official history is the unofficial history of childhood games and rituals, many of which were passed down for generations…It was in this world that every future general first learned to lead, every future scientist first turned over logs to delight in the tiny nightmares underneath, and every future explorer first plucked up the courage to enter the haunted woods.”
I rode my bike through the woods behind our home as a kid on property that wasn’t suitable for housing. But it was perfect for children at play. The bike was a Schwinn Fair Lady with a white wicker basket hanging from the handlebar. Riding it made me thick-skinned, like the guy named Sue in the Johnny Cash song. My preferred bike was a Schwinn Sting Ray with a banana seat and chopper handlebars, but it was stolen. So I confiscated my sister’s Fair Lady with the basket and sissy bar behind the seat.
We lived in what I thought was a tough neighborhood, where boys tried to look hard as if they were auditioning for a Springsteen video. We came home one evening and discovered our television missing from the den. We never locked our doors which reminds me of my best friend’s dad, who would leave his keys inside his brand new truck. When asked about this cavalier approach to vehicle security, he would shrug and say, “What if someone needs to use it?” Which was how we felt about the television. Perhaps someone needed to watch Laverne & Shirley more than we did.
Anyway, I stripped the basket off the Fair Lady bike and added a speedometer to the handlebar and raced down the steepest hill in our neighborhood clocking forty mph without a helmet. I thought that was pretty tough for a 10 year old. But, the woods behind our home was tougher and stranger than our quaint streets and lawns in Oak Ridge Heights.
The woods were transected by a labyrinth of paths worn smooth by the voting feet of feral youngsters. When my children were young I took them to this place because I wanted to show them where I once flipped over the handlebars of my motorcycle and cut my finger with a Bowie knife and ran my bike over a black snake longer than me.
Like many visits to childhood haunts, the place in the woods had shrunk, the gravel lane overgrown. The woods was a place of first crushes and awkward kisses, of motorcycles and rebellion, contraband cigarettes and youthful piracy. It was our fiefdom of creativity and social custom, of love and hate and war and peace long before we understood what any of those things were. It was where the tough kids went to smoke, where the nerdy kids went to catch crawdads, and where some went just to be alone. In the woods we learned how to wander and explore and build things with remarkable ingenuity without the constraint of adult guidance.
It was the wild place my brother visited after he was baptized, just like Jesus when he went into the wilderness for forty days to contemplate what was to come. My brother went there after the perfunctory baptismal banana split celebration at Braums, filled his banana split boat with sticks, and floated it down the creek as he considered his decision to plunge into the watery depths with Christ. My brother went into the woods because that was where kids went to get away from the grown up world they didn’t fully understand yet. It was easier to think about life when you were hidden in those woods away from the noise. Children get away today in the same ways. By going where the adults are not. Sometimes it is into the woods, sometimes into a virtual digital world.
The woods was our third place, long before Starbucks made a third place famous. We worked out our morality with fear and trembling while gathering in a clearing attracted by the flame rising from an old pipeline. The flame was rarely extinguished and we warmed ourselves on winter days mesmerized by its endurance and by the waters that ran fast in the creek after spring rains. We built lean-to forts with thatched roofs in the event of an invasion by the Soviet Union or as a contingency if we ever ran away from home. Here we would have shelter and comfort and an eternal flame rising from the earth. We were learning how to build and invent and play in a childhood universe. The paths we trod upon as children in that wood helped form our personalities, careers, and ideas of how we would spend our time one day as taller humans.
Zechariah 8:5 says that “the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing.” This seems to have been true of all human cultures. We were that band of children forming our own body politik with customs and powers and beliefs and ever evolving oral mythologies. In the fauna and flora of those woods, peppered with puffy fungus and moss and composted leaves we began to explore the nature of who we were before we became builders and generals and teachers and scientists.
Neil Postman wrote in 1982. “A children’s game, as we used to think of it, requires no instructors or umpires or spectators; it uses whatever space and equipment are at hand; it is played for no other reason than pleasure. . . . Kick the Can, Red Rover, Blindman’s Buff…even Hide-and-Seek, which was played in Athens more than two thousand years ago, has now almost completely disappeared from the repertoire of self-organized children’s amusements. Children’s games, in a phrase, are an endangered species.”
Brian Kaller again, “The decline began a few generations ago, when television steamrolled over children’s cultural traditions, and that screen has now multiplied into a billion hand-held ones. When children everywhere carry all the world’s pornography in their pocket, as well as electronic games psychologically designed to addict people as powerfully as heroin, few future leaders will organize their mates, and few budding scientists will turn over any logs. Moreover, children today grow up under effective house arrest, as local ordinances, paranoid neighbors and police conspire to prohibit children from venturing far outside. They grow up learning no lessons, organizing no peers, and exploring no territory, unless it be shifting electrons around a screen, and the screen becomes their world. This unnatural state takes all the power of modern society to maintain, and it does not have to be inevitable or permanent; even now some parents keep their children unplugged and gather with other parents who do the same. If they don’t live near the country themselves, they might visit family who do. They teach small children some games from old books, and let the children take it from there. How this guerrilla action proceeds will depend on the situation, but it needs to be done. Otherwise, today’s children will live in a country filled with the most dependent and least self-sufficient humans who ever lived, polarized and paralyzed by their screens, and facing a difficult future. We will need a new generation of people who can strategize, negotiate, and work together again, and to do that we need children to experience childhood once more.”