When I think about playing as a child, my internal vision becomes a kaleidoscopic series of jumbled images. In my neighborhood there was swimming – in my aunt Nancy’s pool, or next door at the Hunters’ house; riding bikes, walking on stilts, jumping on pogo sticks, skating on the sidewalk wearing strap-on roller skates; playing baseball, army dodgeball and toilet tag; cartwheels, handstands, backbends and splits. At school there was climbing on monkey bars; swinging as high as I could and then jumping off into the sandy strip of earth below the swings; going fast on the merry-go-round, playing “Red Rover,” jump-rope, four-square, marbles, more baseball and tag; at my family’s cabin, walking barefoot along the dirt path next to the river, picking wild strawberries and blueberries, climbing trees until my mom spotted me way up high and made me come down, swimming and squishing my toes into the thick mud bottom of the river near the dock – scary because of the creepy leeches that lived there, but delightful to feel the cold creamy silt surrounding my feet.
Play was also about places – a tiny ledge inside my parent’s garage that my friend and I made into a secret clubhouse; at my grandmother’s house there was the space beneath two big pine trees, a big, musty attic in the barn where a friend and I would pretend to put on shows; at the cabin we kids had the sleeping loft where we spied on the grown-ups, ate Pixie Sticks and read the Bazooka Joe comics that came with our bubble gum and threw our wrappers into the canoe that was stored on the rafters. Inside the house we played in blanket forts under the table, on the stairs, in the basement, or sliding down the long wood floor of the hallway in our socks.
I guess there were risks, but we didn’t really think about them much or we didn’t know there was any danger. High swings, monkey bars and slides, see-saws and merry-go-rounds like nobody has anymore. Nobody wore helmets to ride bikes or knee pads for skating – we didn’t even have seat belts in the car for most of my childhood (I have lovely memories of climbing around in the back seat with my brother, looking out the window, reaching for things on the floor and on the back dashboard). There were definitely scrapes and bruises. My knees looked dirty all the time. I remember scrubbing them with Lava soap, only to discover that the dirty color was permanent – I never knew whether it was a tan, a stain or the effect of multiple scrapes and scabs.
While I had opportunities to play alone, what feels like real play in my memory was with friends or with my brother and cousin. I don’t remember playing with adults. They would occasionally yell out something, but mostly, play was a thing for kids – sort of our own kingdom. I don’t think we thought about it at the time, but in retrospect, that kid-created, grown-up free world made play something that we had for ourselves and we felt free and completely immersed in what we were doing.
It’s hard to say what relationship play has to what I do now. I do know that my play world declined in prominence when I was nine years old, the year my sister Janey was born with severe cerebral palsy and I became involved in caring for her as much as I could – it’s possible that that is partly why I value play so much now. Of the sport-like activities that I loved as a kid, I still love to swim – and I still feel like a kid whenever I’m in a swimming pool.