I saw a lemonade stand last week. Just a little kid with a sign and a table. It wasn’t remarkable, except for the fact that I realized I haven’t seen one in years. Which got me thinking that it’s been a long while since I drove by a park in the afternoon, and saw it filled with children, and I can’t remember the last time I saw kids dressed up in cast-off adult clothes, playing a game of make believe, or marching down the street in a neighborhood parade.
Times change, and so do customs. Carefully orchestrated play dates and scheduled activities have taken the place of pick up games of baseball or bike rides that ranged all over town. The internet and its unlimited horizons may have eclipsed the joy of exploring neighborhood boundaries. Parents made wary by the 24/7 cable news focus on abductions and other dangers now keep children more tightly tethered than my siblings and I were, or than my own kids were when they were little.
This is not to say that ‘back in the day it’ was better, but it was definitely different. When I was a child, we left the house in the morning, came back for lunch, left again until dinner, then we were outside until the street lights came on. The only thing that brought us back home betimes was grievous personal injury — a serious scrape needing a bandaid and a little sympathy, or maybe a broken bone. Though there were surprisingly few of those, given the many trees climbed, bike miles ridden and forbidden bridges crossed.
And there was endless time on hot summer days to do nothing but lie on a blanket in the shade of a tree and watch the clouds passing by, while the leaves whispered softly overhead. And though my own children had more scheduled activities than I did as a child, they still spent most of their free time with neighborhood friends in self-generated play — producing “radio” shows with a tape recorder, organizing dog circuses with our long suffering pet Carrie, sailing on a pirate ship (that also doubled as our front porch) with their friends.
But in this worrisome world, it may well be a luxury with too high a price for parents to allow their offspring the freedom to ramble. And families that need two incomes must juggle jobs and day care with organized ways to give their children play time. I get it, but still …
I miss the sound of joyful whoops and indignant howls as games are won and lost in neighborhood backyards on long summer nights, and the sight of kids playing dress-up in cast-off formal wear, and the taste of watery lemonade on a hot summer afternoon, handed to me with a chubby, grubby hand, and the happy smile of a young entrepreneur.
At the heart of the matter, I suppose, my longing for the return of free and unfettered play isn’t really for the kids’ loss. It’s for mine.
This post first ran in August 2015.