Monday, June 2, 2014

Lazy Summer Days

I guess I was lucky to be born when I was. It was a simpler time and a child in the 60's was still able to play outdoors and run free in ways that children just don't seem to do much any more. I grew up in a quiet neighborhood in Salt Lake City. It was not near streams, fields or ponds, but we had lots of trees and yards, a neat cemetery nearby and a vacant field in the middle of our block. I remember very clearly being so excited about all the playing I was going to be able to do on the first day of summer vacation one year that I was awake and out of the door at sunrise. On any summer day it was not at all unusual for me to grab breakfast, say 'bye to my family, and run out the door, not to be seen again until lunch, and then again at dusk. I wasn't allowed to stay out after it got dark, but otherwise I was free to run and play and explore to my heart's content. We played hard. I'd come home sweaty and dirty.
Young Robin in the Tree
We played elaborate imagination games wearing dress up clothes and using our yards for our homes and castles. We gathered groups of neighborhood kids and played "kick the can" and "hide and seek". The boundaries of the game could be blocks long. We rode our bikes and roller-skated up and down the streets. I can still remember the buzzy feeling in my feet as I rolled down the old, rough sidewalks on those metal wheels. I felt extremely cool wearing a skate key around my neck. We lived across the street from our elementary school and my friends and I spent many hours swinging and hanging on the tricky bars and climbing on the jungle gym. I learned how to ride a bike there.
The Boundaries of Our Imaginations. This is the gate of one of the houses where I lived as a child.
One summer, my best friend and her siblings started a butterfly collection and the other neighbor kids and I joined in.  I can't remember if their mom made the nets for us or if we bought them (I tend to think she made them because their mom was very creative and she was always coming up with fun activities for a houseful of kids--like making box kites with tissue paper and straws), but we all had our nets and set about decreasing the local population of butterflies. We had blocks of styrofoam, maybe from coolers, and we would catch our unlucky butterflies and moths, put them in the kill jar (a jar with a turpentine soaked rag), and then pin them on the board. I don't remember a whole lot about my collection, except that Mourning Cloak butterflies were quite common, so I had a lot of them. And I remember stretching out the pink wings of Sphinx moths from Tomato Hornworm caterpillars. My friend and her brother had the prized Tiger Swallowtails, but I never seemed to be able to see or catch one.
Tiger Swallowtail--the Prize of my Childhood.
Now that I live in Florida, I see them all the time, but they always seem special! And I still collect them, but in photos.
We also collected rocks. Utah has a lot of great rocks. And they are easy to come by. We got to know our granite and mica, obsidian and quartz. We collected river rocks and sandstone and iron pyrite. Sometimes we would take a trip to the Natural History Museum and ooh and ah over the amazing mineral collection there. One summer we went to a rock and gem show and spruced up our collections with fancy store-bought minerals and polished stones.
Sandstone with Lichen
One of my favorite memories is of one day when my friends and I walked the few blocks from our street to the old cemetery. We wandered around the tombstones and crypts and marveled at the dates. Some were so worn that you couldn't read them. Others made us sad because we could see the ages of the children who had died or the mother or young soldier who was gone too soon. We climbed trees and chased butterflies through the soft grass. At some point we were tired and sat down to rest. Lying in the grass and looking up at the birds in the trees, I was so content and comfortable. I could smell the summer smells and hear the sounds of birds and insects and it was so peaceful. I watched the shapes of the clouds roll by and savored the pleasant summer day. I draw on that memory now that I am older and busier and less carefree.
Historic Map of my Neighborhood. You can see the Cemetery at the Upper End. Lots of Room to Roam!
Some days we didn't feel like being outside and we'd play with toys, or read, color or watch TV. But soon the adults would tire of our noise and quarreling and would shoo us outside again. We might sit on the front step, rejected and bored--for 5 or 10 minutes. And then we'd figure out what to do--play hopscotch on the sidewalk or run through the sprinklers. We roamed the streets in a pack, like coyotes, running and yipping and teasing. I'm sure we were not always well behaved and I know we sometimes got into mischief. But it was pretty harmless. And even though we were running free, our parents all had a pretty good idea of where we were. It was a good way to dip our toes into independence.
Magpies in the Grass
In July, it was often too hot inside the house to sleep, so my parents let us invite our friends and we'd all sleep out in the back yard. It was safe, with a block wall and a gate and a faithful dog, and we would lay out our big, thick sleeping bags on the lawn and count the shooting stars and identify the constellations that we knew. I remember watching the Space Station fly by on its regular orbit one summer. We watched Night Hawks and Bats trolling for bugs under the Big Dipper and the Milky Way. Sometimes the smell of a Skunk would waft down from the foothills. We'd talk and giggle and soon we'd drift off to sleep. Occasionally thunder and sprinkling rain woke us up in the middle of the night and the sleep out ended in the living room. Good memories.
Howling at the Moon
I read a great blog today by Nature Educator, advocate and author, ("Last Child in the Woods--Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder") Richard Louv . He has a list of 10 fun ways to get your children outside to play this summer, that you can read here. I'm especially fond of the Wonder Bowl--I guess I've always had one, but didn't have a good name for it! I'd love to see more parents who feel comfortable and safe enough to let their children play outside. I would love to see more parents dare to unschedule their children. I want to hear the sound of children as they laugh and yell and play in their yards, but sadly, it's not a sound I hear much. I am almost startled when I see children ride by on a scooter or play in the neighborhood creek without adults hovering over. It is just so unusual now. We've become fearful of letting children play outside because of our awareness of child predators and other dangers, and I understand that this is a genuine concern. Well meaning parents structure every minute of their child's day, worried that if they don't they won't be able to compete and get into good colleges. But I feel that parents have overreacted to these pressures, to the point where they don't let kids have a childhood. Couple this with our increasing addiction and dependence on electronic gadgets, and the result is that we are becoming detached from nature. We are generally more sedentary and less active and thus less healthy. I heard on the news this week that a third of the world's population is overweight now. But there's a better way. Playing outside helps children clear their brains. Letting them play freely boosts their creativity. Stepping away from the computer and the TV and moving around outside keeps them healthy and fit.  Playing and exploring in nature connects people with the earth and helps develop empathy for living things. I think parents would be advocates for playing outside if they understood what a difference it makes. As we move into summer vacation time, I remember my own childhood summers. These were good times, where I could be outdoors, creative and free. I wish this for every child.
Items for a Wonder Bowl

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