I've been away on a combined romantic getaway and writing sabbatical for the past few days. (Any readers who are thinking about becoming seriously involved with writers: please treat the previous sentence as a cautionary note.)
As inspiring as such a retreat may be, a writer can't stay holed up in the woods with coffee, her laptop, and her beloved forever, so, at the mid-point of our getaway, I ventured into town to scavenge for books: vintage books, to be specific. And because there are both used book store and a thrift store within a stone's throw of one another in downtown Bancroft, I was able to score big. We're talking six books for under $20.
The find of the day was A Guide for Parents: All Children Want to Learn, published in 1954 by The Grolier Society of New York and Toronto. Co-authored by three top experts of the day—Lorene K. Fox, then associate professor of education at Queens College in New York; Peggy Brogan, member of the professional staff at the Child Education Foundation in New York; and Annie Louise Butler, early childhood education instructor at Columbia University's Teacher's College in New York, the book features multi-colored retro illustrations and, by today's standards at least, a simultaneously refreshing and shocking approach to the world of play.
What struck me repeatedly was the authors' almost complete disregard for child safety (or at least the ways in which we define child safety, circa 2008: a world in which a safe product is increasingly defined as a mass-produced, over-packaged product that is sold in a store).
Contrast this with the world of play, circa 1954, the world which the authors of this book lived: they recommend using discarded wooden crates to create everything from puppet theatres to play furniture to doll houses. They suggest hitting the scrap-yard to scoop up old car seats, steering wheels, and other obsolete car parts for use in pretend play. They even suggest hanging outdoor swings from indoor door frames, placing chairs underneath window sills so that little ones can sit and gaze out the window, and placing three, four, and five-foot ladders against walls inside the house so that children can have fun (literally) climbing the walls. Oh yeah: they suggest wheelbarrows as the ultimate fun-mobile for kids who like to wheel one another around (and there's no mention of a helmet or head-to-toe protective gear whatsoever).
Do some of these recommendations cross the line of good judgment? Absolutely. We've come a long way in our knowledge of what it takes to keep kids safe. But sometimes I wonder if, in our effort to protect our kids from an ever-growing list of perceived threats, we've taken out a lot of the fun and adventure that were once part and parcel of being a kid.
Here's what I'm thinking.
Our kids are less likely to want to head outdoors if their play is carefully circumscribed and has to meet the grownup definition of acceptable play. They can no longer build a tree fort in a nearby wooded area (stranger danger) or climb on a pile of dirt (suffocation risk) or do something goofy (goofy usually includes a dash of dangerous). And so they head for the TV or the video game console instead.
In replacing homemade toys (toys that were often made by kids or kids and their parents), we've removed a lot of the fun, creativity, and spontaneity that were part of play. When your parents told you to go and "Make your own fun," they weren't kidding. Sometimes you, quite literally, had to build your own doll house or design your own board game if you wanted something to do that afternoon. I think we had a healthy mix of store-bought toys and toys you made yourself (or with help from a grownup). I remember, for example, designing cardboard dollhouses so that Barbie would have a place to live. It didn't take me long to figure out that Barbie was never going to convince my parents to buy her a Dream House. She would appreciate it so much more if she worked hard and saved for it. (Wait a minute. That's what they told me about the skateboard I wanted around the same time.)
We've also increased the expense of raising kids (that store-bought stuff doesn't grow on trees, as 1970s parents were fond of telling kids) and we've increased our family's environmental footprint massively by thinking we need all this stuff (broken, worn out, or obsolete plastic or electronic toys eventually end up in landfill sites, after all).
I worry that we parents have allowed ourselves to be sold a bill of goods that has, for the most part, been fueled by child safety fears and child development concerns: the idea that a toy that comes from a store is safer and more educational than anything that can be made at home.
Buying into that myth has cost us plenty: economically (in terms of dollars spent on products we didn't necessarily need), environmentally (those products have to go somewhere at the end of the product life cycle), health-wise (an alarming number of mass-produced juvenile products have proven to be dangerous) and lifestyle-wise (in terms of the decreased motivation to play and be active when we ask our kids to accept pre-programmed fun as a substitute for the spontaneous DIY fun of yesteryear.
So what do you think? Is there some sensible middle ground to be found between letting kids dump their baby brothers out of wheel-barrows and handing kids the officially sanctioned educational toy du jour? How do you find that middle ground in your family?