As a child growing up in the 1960s and 70s, I often played outside. A limestone rock became a space ship, or an outcropping of rocks a mysterious planet. Sometimes some neighbors would come over and we’d play kickball, and I would go to their house and play football in their large front yard. Sure, there were the usual fights and shouts of “You cheated!” But overall, it was a wonderful experience.
Playing outside did not mean there was no time for television. I watched the Big Show on Channel 5 in Nashville at 4 p.m. many afternoons, especially when the old Frankenstein and Dracula movies were playing. And I’d watch Red Skelton with Granddaddy or To Tell the Truth with Garry Moore hosting. The world of my childhood was a world of wonder. But television was limited, and I was required to go outside–and I wanted to play outside, ride my bike, swing under the maple tree, walk through the field to a thicket of trees, hide in dark spaces where trees and bushes had filled in, forming leafy roofs.
Another part of that world of wonder was reading. I remember ninth grade—my parents would go to Fred’s on the square in Murfreesboro every Wednesday night. There was a shelf of paperback classics for a quarter each—Journey to the Center of the Earth, The First Men in the Moon, Treasure Island, The Prisoner of Zenda, King Solomon’s Mines. These adventures riveted me into other lands and other times, both past and future. I wonder if many children today know the joy of getting lost in a book.
I am glad I am not a child today, in this world of video games and structured recreation. Video games shorten a child’s attention span and keep the child away from books. The games are in addition to constant television. And when a child plays outside, it is structured play—soccer moms and soccer dads take soccer kids to practice, play, and the child has little time for spontaneous play. It is not organized sports for children that is the problem—it is that taking away all time for spontaneous play stifles their creativity. By the time I see these children in college, they have great hand-eye coordination but many of them lack basic reading and writing skills. Very few students go outside to the picnic tables under shade trees even when the weather is beautiful. They are often holed up in their dorms or in bars. I’m sure that some college students did have a childhood with spontaneous play and adventures with reading. I’m afraid that they are not the majority. Will they realize what they have missed? Or will the new parenting become a cycle, with kids growing less imaginative and more ignorant every generation. If I could do my small part to recreate a sense of wonder in even one student in my class, teaching would be worth the effort. But I hope and pray that parents and school systems will understand the need for open play, for reading, for a sense of adventure and exploration that goes beyond a computer monitor or big screen television or soccer field.