Thursday, June 01, 2023

When I Was A Kid: Lessons learned in childhood play

| March 4, 2022 7:00 AM

Do kids play anymore?

No matter the season, I rarely see them outside. That’s too bad. There’s so much you can learn through play.

When I was a kid, play was so special, it even required a change of clothing. Off came the school clothes and on came the comfortable play clothes. You never outgrew your play clothes — they shredded long before that.

Throwing, catching, running, jumping, pushing and shoving — it was sweaty, dirty play. Most often, it involved some kind of ball, and something to hit it with or throw it at. You kept score. Someone won or lost.

That last one is important. Play included any number of people trying to keep you from winning. They were called the other team. They wanted to win. They made sure play was physical and competitive.

What exactly is a play date? I hate that phrase. I’m fairly sure it includes parental involvement. In my day, parents weren’t a part of our play. How embarrassing if your mom or dad tried to meddle. We didn’t need parents to pick teams, make rules or protect us when we played.

Leadership emerged among the group. As the old saying goes, “Either lead, follow or get out of the way.” In some cases, you had to push someone out of the way. It certainly helped if you were in your yard.

Rules were worked out to allow for obstacles not typically seen on professional fields, excepting Fenway Park. (If the ball gets stuck in the tree, it’s a double. The doghouse is the goal line.) Then play began. And it was competitive.

Feelings were hurt. It was no fun getting picked last. Younger and smaller kids had it tougher. You weren’t picked on, but there wasn’t much let up. You showed up the next day regardless. Those that quit were the same kids that bailed when junior high and high school sports rolled around.

We argued; we called each other the worst names that could come out of a 12-year-old’s mouth. Sometimes you just didn’t like someone else, but you were mostly able to work things out.

Yes, this comes with a cost to be borne later. There is the occasional classmate who shows up at every reunion and all he ever talks about is the time you pushed him into a pile of dog poop during that one football game. The first time around, it made you a little nervous. But it’s been 30 years and he’s never hit you with dog poop, so there’s that.

Play taught us leadership, compromise, adaptability, teamwork and empathy. We didn’t know it then, though. Like most things when you’re a kid, it kicks in later.