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?