Boomers Played Outside When School Was Out for Summer

The annual last day of school was one of the most anticipated days of the year for Baby Boomers. It would be 1972 before Alice Cooper coalesced what boomers were thinking in anticipation of summer vacation, in his song, School’s Out. Before that time, boomers everywhere repeated the refrain that was incorporated into Cooper’s song:

No more pencils
No more books
No more teachers’ dirty looks

Once the mad dash out the school doors was history, boomers couldn’t wait for a summer of outdoor play. And that is exactly what boomers did: spend as much time as possible in the Great Outdoors. A typical summer vacation day for Mister Boomer and his neighborhood was to get up the same time as when school was in session, have a bowl of cereal, and head out the door. He wouldn’t return until dinner time, though on occasion stopped by his house for a cool drink from the hose or a quick sandwich. Parents knew their kids were with a group of other kids, and didn’t know or need to know where they were at any given time. Truth be told, Mister Boomer, his brother and a host of neighborhood kids might very well be a close as a block or two away, or as far as many miles via bicycle.

For Mister Boomer, outdoor play fell into a few categories. One of the most popular among his neighborhood was the all-day baseball game. Innings easily reached double-digits as playing was more important than a game winner or loser. Another was to play in nearby woods and fields. The boys could imagine all sorts of army scenarios, hunt for snakes and mudbugs, pick wild berries and create make-shift weaponry from fallen branches. At one point the neighborhood was deeply involved in creating tree forts. More like platforms than actual buildings, the boys scrounged chucks of wood in alleys and fields, then borrowed hammers and nails from their fathers’ workbenches. Each fort in the forest was built and occupied by four to six boys, and ranged from 10 to 20 ft. off the ground.

Meanwhile, boomer girls in the neighborhood sometimes hung out with the boys, but more often they chose to play in the yards of their neighborhood friends or at the elementary school where the city had various day camp activities available. Mister B would ride Sister Boomer over to the school on his bike, where she could learn how to weave strips of vinyl into useless keychains, among other things, while Mister B might play a game of table hockey.

After dinner, most kids headed back outside. Mister Boomer’s neighborhood often had games of hide and seek. Both boys and girls from seven to early teens would participate. The games would encompass the entire block and have more than fifty players. Once the game was finished, kids could sit on porches or lie in the grass and stare at the constellations. No one had air conditioning in his neighborhood, so the night air felt good after being in the hot sun all day.

By comparison, today’s kids don’t like to spend much time outdoors. Everyone knows kids don’t have the freedom to roam the way boomer kids did, but the results of these changing times have short and long-term ramifications on the health of children. The birth rate has declined by 41 percent since 1960, so neighborhoods have fewer children who can get together as a group. Parental worries about heavy street traffic, pedophiles and missing children add to the mix. A survey by the Center for Disease Control and the Kaiser Family Foundation discovered that on a typical day a child is six times more likely to play a video game than to ride a bike. Bike riding is down 31 percent since 1995.

Many surveys are trying to get to the bottom of this trend, and have discovered some interesting reasons for the indoor preference. One line of thought blames air conditioning. In boomer days few people had home air conditioning. In Mister Boomer’s case, only some stores and the movie theater had it. Kids now have never lived without it, and have grown accustomed to indoor air rather than outside heat.

Others point to the parents. A survey by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) found that participation in every organized sport — including soccer,  basketball, football, track & field, baseball and softball — has dropped significantly in the past five years. Softball alone has seen a drop of 30 percent in participation. When asked, parents offered several reasons why they preferred their children not to participate in these organized outdoor activities: risk of injury; behavior of coaches; commitment of time; cost; and the emphasis on having fun over winning. All valid reasons, but other outdoor play does not seem to be substituted.

Some studies point to the release of Nintendo 64 in 1996 as the beginning of this downward trend away from outdoor play. Video games were around since the early 1970s, but the release of Nintendo 64 greatly enhanced the look and feel of the games, and expanded the amount of games available. The Kaiser study found, on average, today’s kids ages eight to 10 spend six hours a day watching TV, playing video games and using computers.

So, were we boomers outside more simply because we had no other choices? Or are today’s kids inside because of overprotective parents and an addiction to all things electronic? Scientists and physicians predict this trend toward less outdoor play will result in a less healthy generation, which is already reflected in the obesity rate among children. Could it be the answer to much of our country’s health concerns — especially among children — is more outdoor play?

What memories of summer outdoor fun do you have, boomers?

School’s Out for Summer

About this time each year boomers eagerly counted down the remaining moments to when they could run out of their schools, screaming:

No more pencils
No more books
No more teachers’ dirty looks

Then suddenly, it was summer vacation; that glorious time of year when we could bask in the warmth of the sun, free of responsibility and forced learning. Much of our summer time was spent outdoors. The contrasts between how our generation spent summer days and what kids today do on their summer vacation is striking.

In our day, we generally woke up the same time we did when we had to go to school, which could be anywhere between 6 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. In Mister Boomer’s case, he and his siblings woke around 7 a.m., slipped out of our summer-weight pajamas and into shorts and a pullover shirt. Then we’d fix ourselves a bowl of cereal for breakfast. For Mister B and his siblings, that could be anything from Corn Flakes to Cheerios; Shredded Wheat to Raisin Bran; Sugar Pops to Sugar Smacks; Cocoa Puffs to Lucky Charms.

After rinsing our bowls and leaving them in the sink (Mister B’s family, like a lot of boomer families, did not have a dishwasher), we’d give our teeth a quick brushing and we’d be ready to go our separate ways out the door, all before our mother was even awake. So it was with most boomers all summer long — children could leave the house in the morning and not return until dinner time. During the agricultural era, people living on farms used bells to call the family to the dinner table; in the suburban boomer era, it was moms standing on their front porches, calling out the names of their children. We’d often be within earshot, a block or two away, so would usually pick up our individual maternal call that would immediately end our play and beckon us to head home.

What would we do in the eight to nine hours we’d be outside? Studies have shown that we’d participate in unstructured play with neighborhood children. While girls tended to stay closer to home, the boys could be anywhere from a baseball field to deep in nearby woods, thanks to their bicycles. The play was considered unstructured because the group would decide at that moment on that day what we’d do next: dig foxholes and play army, gather teams for a 100 inning baseball game or explore fields and streams looking for snakes, tadpoles and insects. Occasionally girls would join in with the boys, but generally, they remained near home and played with dolls or board games.

By contrast, today’s kids are media consumers. A recent report indicated children are spending almost eight hours a day either watching TV, playing video games or surfing the Internet. Some say this precipitous rise in indoor activity is directly correlated to the availability of mobile electronic devices, including cell phones and iPods. While we would spend hour upon hour outdoors in unstructured play, today’s children are spending half as much time outdoors as children did just 20 years ago, let alone compared to boomer years. Unstructured play has been reduced to just four to seven MINUTES a day. While our day was open ended, time for today’s kids is much more structured, with team sports or classes at given schedules. It is true, however, that today’s kids have fewer playmates. Being part of the baby boom meant there was always a group of kids in every neighborhood. Mister B recalls that every house on his block, with the exception of a couple of senior citizens, had more than one child. Children of different ages often played together as well. By the very mathematical nature of the birth rate since our Baby Boom years, there are fewer kids now to be prospective play buddies.

It’s becoming increasingly difficult for aging boomers like Mister B to understand how this indoor/outdoor shift will produce positive results for society as a whole. Yet it’s good to remember that the generation before us often didn’t have the luxury of summer play-time at all. Mister B’s father was working in a factory at age 12 to help his family out during the Depression. One generation later, we were given the gift of time — time to play, discover and breathe.

That summer time produced some fantastic memories for Mister B, as it has for boomers across the country. Will the generations that followed us be able to look at their summer play with the same nostalgia and remembrance of video games past? And will their summer experiences teach them life lessons that will carry them into their adult endeavors? What do you think, boomers?

Source: “Changing Times of American Youth: 1981-2003”, Juster, F. Thomas et al. (2004). Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan. Child Development Supplement