I did most of my growing up in a wooded suburb northwest of Chicago. Long, tall, straight trees guarded my childhood from urbanization. My house sat alongside a tributary to the Des Plaines River. In the spring I would catch crayfish and tadpoles and make them my pets. Through trial and error I learned what to feed them to keep them alive. I have captured in my mind the very moment I set Tad and Polly free as adult toads to forge their own way through life’s journey.
The eldest of three and the only girl, my brothers and I created worlds among the trees and the creek and the brush, where we were king. In a silent language it was commonly known as “Our World” and an inherent freedom came with that world – freedom from all adults. In “Our World” my brothers and I made all the laws. Sometimes we discussed what was fair and right and just for everybody. Sometimes we were dictators before we even knew there was a word that named it. And sometimes there were wars. Listening to my mother they were horrid – mud flung in every direction, sometimes even hoses and water pistols came into play. To us they were just fun.
Doors were open to us in “Our World” that adults had often closed to us. On the Wild West continent I could be sheriff even though we had never seen nor heard of a girl sheriff. Six-year olds were expert riders in “Our World” and we all got turns being the “Bad Guy” – free of real world consequences. Each and every day we could reinvent ourselves and our place. We learned what it felt like to be bad without being real world bad. We learned how to be presidents and bosses where if we made poor decisions they couldn’t really hurt anybody and good decisions were celebrated with congratulatory slaps and complimentary words. It was safe try on new hats. It was safe to fail. It was fun to learn.
I learned how to take risks and how the laws of nature work. This was particularly evident when after watching the movie “The Great Escape,’ my brothers and I dug a reinforced twelve foot long tunnel behind our woodpile. When my mother found out we were severely scolded and the words that are every mother’s inalienable right to utter hit our ears – “Don’t you know you could have been killed?”
Actually we didn’t.
The thought never occurred to us, we just assumed that we would be successful.
What I didn’t know then but what I know now is that, among other things, through my play I was internalizing our cultures social structure. I was also learning the skills I needed to be a leader and I was learning how to handle adult responsibilities before the role was actually handed over to me. I learned how to cooperate with others and work through conflicts. I learned how to negotiate and compromise. I learned how to monitor my emotions. My internal knowledge was enhanced as I witnessed life cycles, and the food chain, and the natural laws of physics every day. I had the freedom to problem solve and test hypothesis in a safe environment. Later, when the threat of nuclear attack permeated my pre-adolescent years during the Cuban Missile Crisis, I had no doubt I would survive. My confidence soared, as I recalled the underground tunnel system we had constructed. I took mental note where my mother housed the canned goods and other non-perishables then plotted where in the tunnel they would be stored. I would be the hero and my family would be safe. Thank goodness for play.
I fear for some children in their abundance of “play” through organized sports games, structured summer camps, systematic music lessons and multi-media technology games. I sincerely hope that all the bugs they have played with aren’t found just in computers. I wonder how many of them have actually cracked an egg on the sidewalk during a 100-degree day to see if it really was “hot enough” to fry. And I really, really hope that they all have had enough time to be bored – so bored that they have had to problem-solve their way out of it, work through their emotions, then taken a personal risk and tested a hypothesis or two.
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