Boomers Enjoyed Unstructured Summer Play

If there is one thing Mister Boomer misses terribly from his early boomer days, it is having a summer off from school. As an adult, responsibilities to family and work take precedent, so time in the summer (or lack thereof) becomes more precious as he ages. Decades later, as he ponders those wonderful summer days, he realizes what he misses is not only the time out of the classroom, but the sheer freedom of it all. A week away from the work desk cannot hold a candle to two-plus months of unstructured play.

Once the last school bell had rung, children were free from the commands of teachers. Parents not only allowed this freedom, but encouraged it. In fact, most boomers will tell you their parents did not know what their kids did during the day. As long as they were home for dinner, parents did not want to know about their children’s summer activities unless they came home bleeding, or escorted by a police officer.

We were free to keep ourselves busy. Sometimes that meant inventing games, other times it was exploring, while others, still, it meant a time to be mischievous. The point was, children were left to their own devices to work things out. In Mister Boomer’s case, the neighborhood group included kids from age 7 to 14. Though the older kids often took the lead in deciding what to do, the entire group was able to voice their opinions or offer suggestions. In this group dynamic, it was not unusual for strange games or competitions to appear, with rules being concocted on the fly. It also meant that on occasion, there might be some blood, usually because of some foolhardy attempt at one thing or another, more than fighting.

Virtually every child development study these days points to a lessening in the amount of unstructured play time compared to that of our boomer days. Consequently, the debate over structured play versus unstructured play has been going on for decades since the boomer generation. Every boomer grandparent is aware of the often grueling schedule their grandchildren keep during the summer, being ushered from one practice to another, one structured activity to another. Mister Boomer makes no claims to the authoritative reasoning behind such discussions, other than the fact he grew up as a boomer.

In 2016, Michael Patte, professor of teaching and learning and a child life specialist, released a white paper called, From Pick Up Games to Play Dates –- The Decline of Child-Initiated, Unstructured Play and the Rise of Backseat Children. The good professor summarizes the reasons for the decline in unstructured play as:

• Safety concerns
• Increased time spent at school
• Desire by parents for childhood to be a time of resume building for college
• Increase of structured play activities

He goes on to say that unstructured play is key to proper balance in childhood development. Unstructured play assists in:

• Social competency
• Self-discipline
• Aggression control
• Problem solving
• Conflict resolution

Surely we boomers were not conscious of such teaching moments, but Mister B feels that when you think back, you will recall times when that is exactly what was occurring in the fields, playgrounds and streets of our youth during summer vacations.

Boomers in the 1960s and ’70s advocated for more freedom of all types for everyone. Self-expression was a big part of that freedom. Could that desire have been rooted in the way we were allowed to spend our summer vacations — in total and complete unstructured play?

Do you think about unstructured play these days, and the freedom you had as a kid during summer months, boomers?

Boomers Got Cuts and Bruises

Mister Boomer recently heard a discussion about playground safety, and was immediately transported back to his boomer days at the schoolyard. The differences between conditions and attitudes during our time and today are more than striking, starting with the entire concept of keeping kids safe.

These days, every playground has some sort of ground padding, lest the children fall and hurt themselves. These days all visible nuts, bolts and screws have to be covered, lest little hands become injured. These days bare metal is often sheltered from the sun, or a substitute like plastic is used, lest children burn themselves from sun-heated metal. Contrast these things with boomer playgrounds.

First of all, there was the ground. Whether below swings, monkey bars, teeter-totters or merry-go-rounds, there were four choices of ground surface: dirt, concrete, gravel, or, on some occasions, asphalt. Not much thought was given at the time to kids falling off equipment. Most of the time, kids flew off the equipment on purpose, like jumping from a swing at peak height. The merry-go-round spinner is hardly found on playgrounds these days, probably because the whole idea was to get it spinning fast enough to throw kids off to the ground. The results were scrapes and bruises. Boomers called that fun.

In boomer days, everything at the playground was made of metal for durability. Only the swing seats were the exception, though they could be made of metal in some areas. Swing seats were generally made of wood or hard rubber. In all cases, metal heating up in the hot summer sun could burn little legs and arms exposed by wearing shorts and short sleeves. A quick “ow” and play was resumed.

Climbing the monkey bars, or attempting to climb any equipment in a manner that wasn’t intended — a common occurrence — could result in cut fingers when grasping connection points bearing nuts and bolts. Kids often tried to climb up the side posts of the swing sets, or walk up the metal slide. Mister B recalls kids grasping the underside of the metal slide and making their way up as far as they could. For Mister Boomer, the monkey bars were often to blame for a little blood on the hands after a rigorous play session. Mister Boomer’s only broken bone resulted from his five-year old self’s attempt to stand on the metal slide. A fall off the side resulted in a doctor visit and cast.

It was common for children to head back to class after recess with cuts and bruises. In most instances, the kids were not even sent to the school nurse. In summer, it was Mister B’s experience that kids would not stop play unless it was something tremendously serious. A little blood on the fingers or scraped knee was a Red Badge of Courage, not the end of the world.

Mister B can only imagine how a teacher today might react to some blood on a child after recess. And what would happen if a kid appeared in school, covered in scrapes and bruises? In many states the teacher would be required to report the situation. What was an everyday thing for boomers is now the subject of an investigation of parental or other adult physical abuse.

So, which era is better? That may depend on how you define safety, and your point of view on raising children. On the one hand, boomers were allowed to make mistakes that resulted in scrapes and cuts and the occasional concussion or broken bone. It did not freak out our parents; rather, they seemed to take it in stride as part of growing up.

Mister Boomer suspects that some blogger fifty years from now will write a similar post about the days when he got carpel tunnel syndrome from spending so much time grasping a video game console, or texting. For the most part, Mister B is glad he was allowed to get scraped and bruised. It was part of play, and a lesson that there were positives and negatives possible for every situation.

What memories of playground cuts, scrapes, bruises, sprains and broken bones do you have, boomers?