I get a kick out of watching little kids open expensive, high-tech presents and then abandon them to play in the box they came in. Imagination still abounds in our children, it’s just been stifled by “learning experiences, smart toys, and educational gadgets.”
Childhood should be about play, play without adult influence, play for the sake of play.
The joys of childhood have been eroded by those same snowplow parents that will soon wreak havoc at the local elementary school and share their misery with everyone around them.
But play, just playing with something as simple as an oatmeal carton, a cardboard box, or some string and a few sticks remains the best thing a child can do.
I watch my granddaughters take big chunks of chalk and create elaborate designs on the sidewalk outside my daughter’s home. No, they’re not Rembrandt’s in training, their creations are much more important, they are an expression of themselves, manifest into reality. Play does that.
Childhood is a distant memory for me, now that I’ve been through the golden handcuff era of the nine-to-five rat race and can thankfully call my own shots for however many years I have remaining. But a few things stand out distinctly in my memory.
My grandma Sally was an interesting person. In retrospect, I wish I’d had a chance to know her better as an adult. She passed away just before Sue, and I were married in 1982. A farm woman, she became a nurse in her 50s, an achievement hard for me to believe today. The hardships this woman of the Great Depression faced in raising my dad as a sharecropper’s wife before grandpa was able to purchase his little 35 acres of paradise are daunting. They’re something that makes the challenges I’ve faced pale in comparison.
Grandma enjoyed fishing. She had an Afro-American friend Lulu Belle (yes, her real name) whom she often went after crappie with. Crappie and bream were her favorite fish, and those two old gals could out fish any of the men on the backwaters and tributaries of the Mississippi they called home.
I wish I had the clipping from the Memphis Commercial Appeal of Grandma Sally and Lulu Belle with a record catch of crappie. The yellowed clipping was on her refrigerator for years.
A stout teenager, a kid at least 6-2 and 200 pounds was holding a huge string of crappie between the two smiling women. Grandma and Lulu Belle were only about 5-2 each and the kid towered over them. He was straining with over a hundred pounds of crappie hanging from several metal stringers. The headline read, “Local women do well on L’Anguille.” The L’Anguille is a tributary of the St. Francis which flows into the Mississippi.
Sue and I had our honeymoon on the L’Anguille in a resort cabin owned by my Aunt Sugar, grandma’s sister-in-law.
Fishing was their adult form of play.
I had other types of play thanks to Grandma.
I enjoyed shopping with her at the local Winn-Dixie in Marianna, Arkansas. Picking out cereal and fruit was fun, but in the 1960s they had comics, the good ones, Superman, Fantastic Four, Metal Men, and Batman in racks by the checkout stand. Grandma was a devout Pentecostal Church member and didn’t approve of comics. She didn’t mind buying me one of those rubber band-powered balsa wood planes I loved so much, and she was almost eager to purchase a bag or two of plastic soldiers.
This was 1960s Arkansas, the Civil Rights Act had just been passed, and the society was very much segregated by race. The town park in Blytheville where we lived had a little train that ran around the perimeter of the park, but white kids and black kids were never allowed to ride it together. A white wooden sign with colored written in black paint on one side, and white, in the same black paint on the other let you know who was allowed on the next trip around the park.
Everyone got to ride, just not at the same time. It seemed strange to me as an elementary student since I went to school at an Air Force Base elementary and there were black kids, white kids, Hispanics, and Polynesian classmates sitting next to each other. But that was a federal agency, Arkansas wasn’t integrated yet.
The toy soldiers next to the checkout stand at the Winn-Dixie reflected this trend. The very name “Dixie” gives you an idea of how many shoppers viewed the store.
The biggest bags of soldiers were “Blue and Gray,” that’s what the caption on the bag read.
The Civil War was still a visceral experience in my southern youth. The plastic Yankees and Rebels packed tightly into those cellophane bags reflected the images that Arkansas’ white society hoped would continue.
That might be the philosophical view of a man separated from those days by almost six decades, a guy who has dedicated his life to kids, and history in nearly equal proportions, but to that man (me) as a nine-year-old kid, they were just toys.
Grandma would buy me a set of Civil War soldiers, a bag of Americans and Japs (that’s what the bag read, no matter how much it offends us today), or another of my favorites simply labeled “Custer.”
As you might guess, the “Custer set” was blue cavalry soldiers and red Sioux, Arapaho, or Cheyenne. Only in those days, I didn’t know there were different tribes, they were all jumbled into one as “Indians.”
It didn’t matter once I got back to grandma and grandpa’s house. I ripped the bags open, separated the Confederates and the Yanks, or the cavalry and the Indians, or the Marines and the Japanese, and set up a battlefield.
Grandma had a heavy wool rug in the middle of the living room. It weighed so much that when I crinkled it up, it stayed in place with ripples, high points, and flat spots. In my childish mind, that rug became the hills of Chattanooga, the cliffs at Point du Hoc, or the rising plains of the Greasy Grass at the Little Big Horn.
Once again, I didn’t know any of these places existed, but a few years later I would, and once again in retrospect, I think it was the foundation of my life as a student of history.
The rug became hills, valleys, and riverbeds. Epic calvary charges, brave last stands, and flanking maneuvers took place in those old woolen folds on that hardwood floor.
It was play, play for the pure joy of allowing your imagination to wander. But it foretold a future I couldn’t fathom at the time, a future that extends to the present day.
The message is to let the kids play. They don’t have to be guided by adult “learning experts,” and they don’t need digital devices with blinking lights, voices, and music. They just need to play.
Let kids be kids. Stop by Kusels, or Meyers, and take home an appliance box. Cut a few holes in it and watch as your children or grandchildren turn it into a fort, a post office, a library, or a gas station. It’s play for play’s sake, and maybe, just maybe, a path to their future.