“I’m bored, Mom.” It’s the phrase from my 9-year-old akin to fingernails on a chalkboard. But I can’t use that analogy with him since chalkboards, in his mind, have a place in the antiquities along with the typewriter.
Instead I tried another approach. “Did you know, son, that when I was your age, I didn’t have a computer or video games or Netflix? Kids’ television shows came on for a couple of hours on Saturdays only — even in the summer. And I didn’t have a brother or sister to play with either.”
His mouth sat agape. “How did you LIVE?”
I chuckled at his sincere, albeit dramatic, reaction. I suppose my growing up years in the 1980s and 90s does seem akin to the stone age.
My mind drifted to those summer days, those after school hours. My eyes brightened and the corners of my mouth turned up at the memories as I recounted snapshots of my childhood to my son.
I always lived in the city (well, as “city” as you get in small town Arkansas – perhaps a “neighborhood” is a more accurate term), but I never ran out of things to do. One autumn I found leftover pallets and bricks in a field near our house. I built a covered playhouse complete with a courtyard, and I even placed our real Christmas tree inside after the Christmas season. During cold January days I learned that a simple shelter blocking the north wind made my time outside more bearable. As winter gave way to warmer weather, I found more bricks and stacked them on the perimeter of the roof using a scrap 2×4 as a ramp to the top. I placed a tarp on the bricks, welling out an area for rain to collect. A rooftop “pool” that was perfect for my Barbies.
A few years later, as childhood transitioned into adolescence, I discovered a small open shelter complete with a cot in the neighbor’s back yard. Behind this, cattle grazed in the open field. It was the perfect reading nook until one day I discovered a baby calf in the shelter. I ran for my life, barely escaping as the momma charged toward me.
Then there was the year of the 1992 Olympics, and just like most girls my age, I watched the women’s gymnastics with rapt attention. Not content to simply observe the competition, I created my own in my back yard. I used the handles of an old rusty tiller to pretend to navigate the uneven bars. A boom box belted out my “floor routine” -– probably Paula Abdul and M.C. Hammer. I was a progressive gymnast and a sturdy tree branch made the perfect balance beam.
Simply walking the paths of these dusty memories elicited longing for the days of my childhood again. But it also stirred a desire for my children to forge outdoor experiences of their own.
Partly of my own doing, my children’s summers and after school hours aren’t filled with escapades in the back yard. Instead of building houses with scrap wood, they build shelters on Minecraft. Instead of exploring the open fields, the calendar is full of organized sports. Instead of balancing on a six-foot-high tree branch, they jump in the safety of the net surrounding the trampoline.
Of course, nothing is wrong with Minecraft, sports, or backyard toys. But where is the free play? The unstructured creativity?
And of more importance, how can I change course so they will be able recount with nostalgia to their children how they spent their free time?
Children need to play. Outside. In their own back yards. They need to be bored so they can build their creativity.
As the weather cools off, may I recall my unstructured childhood and reply to the “I’m bored” statement with, “Go outside. Build. Discover. Pretend. Dream. Find the treasures of imagination in your own back yard.”