Sunday, January 17, 2010

Send Them Out to Play



I lament with a grieving sigh the number of sports that children seemingly can no longer simply go outside and play. Sparsely found throughout neighborhoods are the sandlots of yesteryear wherein easy baseball games could spontaneously be organized among friends. Growing up, my own neighborhood had a vacant lot where bike jumps could be constructed. Caked in mud, my friends and I would return from the track with the satisfaction written on our face of having worked hard at our fun.

Many more stories could emerge from my childhood regarding "the jungle" just upstream from our home on the Sacramento River. Because of the varying seasonal flow levels for the river, there was a significant swath of land upstream from our home, yet downstream from the Cypress Street bridge, that could never be developed. The Sacramento River flooded this area annually, if not more often. The vegetation overgrowth, the lack of development, the stagnant bogs, bamboo and vines all made it seem like a far away "jungle." How many epic adventures this "jungle" facilitated cannot be counted.

Taking turns being Rambo, G.I. Joe, Chuck Norris* or Indiana Jones, our imaginations flourished with perceived dangers around every tree (I know I listed Chuck Norris among a catalog of mythological characters, but none who know young boys or has been one would reasonably object). Even when a long cherished vacant lot across from my home finally saw a house built on it, other "uncharted territories" abounded. At the end of the street remained a low depression that simply could never be built on. Therefore, the tree in its center stood unmolested throughout my childhood. It's majestic branches housed the finest of tree forts. Nearby a mythic mound of blackberry vines ominously overshadowed the ditch's base. Only the bravest dared to attempt paving a tunnel to its center with clippers and machete. Six Flags is for sissies. We were real men.

It's not that girls weren't allowed. It's just that women's lib goes only so far. At 12 years old they may want equal rights to the stereo and the phone, but they draw the line at blackberry vine thorns, murky swamp water, and the glistening sheen of adolescent male sweat conjured through an honest day's work constructing the world's greatest hideout. With hammer, saw and nails in hand, we marched down to "The Tree" to craft the ever more grand fortress. The steps were secure and the platform was high enough to boast a commanding view of the cul de sac. From this vantage point, one could easily knock a Pepsi can off the nearest mailbox with your BB gun (who didn't have one?).

These were the battlefields of countless acorn wars, fearless knights repelling the barbarian hordes and races through foliage without concern for being struck by whipping vines (besides... chicks dig scars anyway). My parents paid little mind to the dangers inherent in our activities unless a neighbor complained (we all feared the disapproval of our fathers regarding our exploits - that kept it within reason), or unless someone was actually injured.*

*As an aside, it must be mentioned that the term "injury" is relative. Scraped knees, falling hard on the ground or lacerations that draw blood can only be called "injuries" if they interrupt play. Otherwise, you play through it. "Oh man! My mom's gonna be mad. That's the second pair of pants I've ruined this week." For the most part, mom is appreciated for slapping the band aid on so we can get back at it.

What happened to the "the jungle" though? Where's "The Tree?" Where's the bike track that I wiped out so bad on that I laid in the mud for an entire 73 seconds to make sure I was fine?

Now it seems parents are so careful, so scared, so concerned over the safety of every little activity. How miraculous that any children survived toddler stages prior to the age of padding up every corner in the house. Instead of encouraging children to simply get out of the house and play to the hilt, money must be raised to afford the sports league with its list of expenses. Xbox and Wii in the living room are replacing the dirt and danger of the vacant lot. This is a lamentable trend that, in my opinion, is weakening our children as surely as junk food is tied to the national issues of obesity found everywhere in the news. Kids don't need a video game control as much as they need a hammer. They don't need a mouse as much as they walking stick. The joystick for the couch is more dangerous than the hockey stick for the street. For the cost of most video games, parents could well supply kids to get outside and work up a sweat.

"Send them out to play," I say. That computer game, Wii, Xbox, or playstation is like junk food - an occasional delicacy that can ruin their health if not heavily regulated. Kick them off the couch and out of the house. It won't kill them. On the contrary, they might just live life more to the full.

1 comment:

Melissa said...

I, too, had a lot of vacant land at my playtime disposal and remember fondly all the games my brothers and sister and I played outside.

While you had "The jungle," those of us a half mile farther up Bechelli Lane had "The Forest"... until developers came and turned it into Mission Square Shopping Center. *sigh*

I am a huge proponent of "Get outside and play!" and I'm glad to know I'm not the only one.