When I was a kid, play meant do fun things. It really was that simple. You ran around outside with your friends, or used your imagination to invent complex situations using simple objects you had around the house. You had simple, straightforward toys, or made everyday objects into your toys. Today, play can mean many things, but rarely means just do fun things. You need expensive equipment, a fancy destination, and a master’s degree to figure out the rules.
Usually, modern-day play involves having access to, and knowing how to use a computer, smart phone, Wii, X-Box, or some other electronic device. Or it might involve a play date at which you usually travel several miles to an amusement park or water park, and pay a lot of money to brave the crowds and wait in lines in order to do fun things. At the age of 3 or 4, kids are riding around on their own 4-wheelers or snowmobiles! And even the simpler toys of today are expensive and really don’t allow for much creativity. You buy a Lego kit that makes one character, you build it, and you play with it, until you get bored with that one character.
When we were kids, we had things like jump ropes, rubber bouncy balls, jacks, marbles, tea sets, army men, Legos, cars, and dolls. Inside, we used measuring cups, pots, pans, glasses, and spoons to play in the water in the kitchen sink. We filled our tea sets with water and had a tea party with no one else in attendance. We put our dolls to sleep in a cardboard box with one of our old blankets. We built forts out of blankets and chairs, or between our beds. We played store, or restaurant. We played marbles on the rug, or raced our cars around on the floor. We played board games like Monopoly or Pachisi, or played solitaire or rummy. In the summer we would swing on the swing set, go down the slide, or ride our bikes. We played jump rope until the rope wore out from hitting the pavement. We roller skated, pogo sticked, turned cartwheels, did handstands and backbends, played tag, hide and seek, red light/green light, and Red Rover. We went outside and ran around until we couldn’t run any more. If it was hot, we’d play with the hose, or the sprinkler. In the winter we’d go sledding, have snowball fights, and build snow forts.
One of my favorite play “inventions” was making “salad” out of grass and various bits of plant life outside, and pretending to serve it. And I remember when I was very young, my mom would wrap one of her aprons around me (on me it was up high under my armpits, like a dress), and stand me on a kitchen chair so I could reach to play in the sink. My brother and I each had a collection of marbles. Mom sewed us each a drawstring bag to keep them in. We didn’t just play marbles with them. I remember we had a coffee table that had a little rim around the top edge, so you could roll your marbles around on it without them rolling off the table. We would put out a bunch of marbles, and then tip the table around to make them “skate” as we hummed The Skater’s Waltz. If I was invited to play with my brother’s Legos, it was a big deal. We would build elaborate buildings, or castles with motes. And if I was really lucky, he’d let me play with his Erector Set with him, which involved true engineering skills. We made gears that turned, and moved the machines we’d invent. There were even batteries to connect power to these inventions. But I could also play jacks for a good portion of the day, and be quite happy.
Our biggest leaps into technology were watching Looney Tunes cartoons on TV, listening to our transistor radio, playing records on our record player, and eventually, recording goofy stuff on our reel to reel tape recorder. We didn’t have child-sized 4-wheelers, or snowmobiles. We didn’t have to master the computer games, and couldn’t experience a “real” drive-by shooting, either, and that was just fine by us. We were busy coming up with the next maneuvers for the little plastic army men perched on the hill next to our house.
I have to wonder how these very different modes of “creative play” affect us as we become adults. I think my brother and I, and those of our generation turned out just fine. We went to school, got good jobs, made friends, and learned all the new technologies as they came along. We became problem-solvers, collaborators, and inventors. And today’s kids? Are they less able to be problem-solvers and team players? I don’t think so…they just might approach it using different technologies and strategies.
But when it comes to creativity, I’m not sure it’s the same. Maybe not any worse or better for one generation or the other, but definitely different. I can still brainstorm and come up with creative ideas like crazy. I’ve found some of the younger generation have trouble with this “free thinking” creativity. I remember when I was teaching, thinking it was so great to let my students have a “free choice” day in their writing journals. They thought it sucked. Some of them sat there the entire time, unable to think of anything to write about. They needed me to tell them a topic…give them a specific assignment. They couldn’t just write about anything they were thinking about.
I hope that there are still kids out there running around, just playing, with no fancy equipment, from time to time. I hope that sometimes the computer games are set aside for a good round of gin rummy with the family. I hope that the violence in the simulation games isn’t rubbing off on the kids of today. I hope that some kids still want to run through the sprinkler with their siblings rather than go to the fancy water park.