I was in sixth grade, it was lunchtime and we were on the dirt and asphalt school playground. Lunchtime was unorganized free time to do whatever activity we wanted, loosely monitored by a roaming teacher. I and a group of friends were playing "first bounce or fly," a simple game in which a batter tossed a softball into the air and hit it out to the other kids. When you caught a fly ball, you became the batter. It was very simple and competitive, you catch the ball, you bat, no taking turns. So the more skilled players clearly dominated fielding and batting. And no one ever complained about it being unfair, we just understood the rules.
I was batting and about to hit the ball when one of my best friends, Larry, said it was his at-bat. I said it was mine (I don't remember what we were disputing as the rules were pretty basic) and to step back as I was going to swing the bat. He continued to argue it was his turn and refused to step back. I told him again I was going to swing and to back off or get hit. As I tossed the ball up and started to swing he stepped forward and reached for the bat. I missed the ball but nailed Larry smack in the forehead and he dropped like a sack of potatoes and started screaming. I thought I'd killed him. Of course, this quickly drew a crowd and the monitoring teacher.
Somehow we convinced the teacher it was an accident, Larry stepping in front of me just as I swung the bat. Larry was hustled off to the nurse's office, his parents called to take him to the ER where he was assessed and sent home. He was back in school the next day proudly sporting a goose egg on his forehead. Expecting severe consequences, Larry and I got nothing more than a severe talking to and a warning to be more careful in the future. I don't recall my parents being called by the school (I'm sure I didn't tell them what happened), Larry's parents didn't file assault charges against me or bring lawsuits against my parents and the school district. And Larry and I remained friends until we went our separate ways after leaving eighth grade.
So what would this scenario look like today? First of all, there wouldn't be this scenario. The playground would be a rubberized surface, not dirt and asphalt which could cause serious injury or infection if someone fell on it. Supervision would be by a teacher closely overseeing an organized activity. Dangerous objects like bats and balls would not be allowed in any case. If the game was played it would be under close adult oversight and would ensure that equal turns at bat were taken, eliminating any competition that might undermine lesser skilled players' self-esteem.
My parents and Larry's would have been brought in for a meeting and the school district's lawyers would be consulted in anticipation of lawsuits by his parents. An investigation by school district security would be launched, kids questioned to determine if an assault had occurred and I would be suspended pending a psychological evaluation and follow-up counseling sessions.
Wow! Things have sure changed since those days when kids walked to school without adult accompaniment and were pretty much out of parental sight from the time we got home from school until dinner time or darkness. Even darkness was not a boundary during summer time when games such as hide and seek were played until we were called in for bedtime.
Weekends were pretty much spent roaming our neighborhoods and exploring new ones, maybe returning home briefly for lunch before heading out for more roaming. And once we got bikes our roamings expanded exponentially. Today we hear about so-called "free range kids," (I thought "free range" referred to eggs from chickens raised outside of cages) the idea being that kids should occasionally be allowed out of sight and tight supervision of their parents. We weren't "free range", we were just kids being kids. If our parents worried about us, they never voiced it unless something really major happened. Crashing your bike or falling out of a tree usually elicited a warning not to do it again or be more careful next time.
Climbing and raiding a ripe cherry tree in a distant neighborhood, even when the homeowner threatened to call the cops, was exciting and tested our courage and willingness to take risks. Riding bikes down a steep hill with no hands or building a jump out of snow was thrilling and pushed our limits (some towns are now outlawing sledding as being too dangerous).
When I was twelve I had an afternoon paper route with about sixty-five customers. Every afternoon and early Sunday mornings I'd ride my bike to a location two miles from my house to collect and count my papers and then head out on my route regardless of the weather or vicious dogs. During the winter we delivered papers in the dark (kids with morning routes almost always delivered in the dark except during the summer), paid the paper their share and what was left over was our income. We were also responsible for collections. If we didn't collect, we didn't make any money.
Delivering papers taught us responsibility, perseverance, tenacity, independence and the ability to face challenges and build confidence. Except for the time I was bitten by a dog, I don't recall my parents ever expressing any worry about my safety. My dad told me to carry a big stick in my paper bag and that solved the dog problem.
Children are born with the instinct to take risks in play because learning to navigate risk is essential to our survival. Our earliest ancestors had to learn to run from some dangers or defend themselves against others. In risky play kids force themselves to overcome their fear by doing the thing they're afraid of. Overprotecting our children can result in more fearful children and possibly developing phobias. More harmfully, it denies them the necessary opportunities to face and overcome daunting challenges, develop independence, and the confidence to make sound decisions, skills that are essential to become successful and self-sufficient adults.
Next Time: THEFEARMONSTER's PLAYGROUND