Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Playground games: The Latest Casualty

An elementary school in Massachusetts has banned tag, dodgeball, and touch football on the recess playground. According to the principal, this drastic measure was taken in an effort to keep children safe (and thereby, avoid lawsuits) and avoid "inappropriate touching."

I want to say something about this, but the sheer absurdity of the situation leaves my fingers paralyzed. (It took me 3 minutes to type that sentence, and I'm not kidding.) My mind reels at the idea that society has sunk to such an all-time low that school administration is willing--and feels the need--to revoke one of the few carefree childhood activities our kids are still allowed to enjoy: chase games.

While a first-grader, I participated in a version of tag called Boys Chase the Girls at nearly every recess. We all played from my neighborhood, kids from across the highway, kids from other classes. These were kids whose families I knew, whose faults I was well aware of and loved anyway. They were my friends. One sunshine-filled winter day, the kind where ice covers the tree branches and ground and the air is so cold it burns to breathe, we were running wild around the playground. It was how we got our wigglies out, expended that excess energy that drove our teachers mad in the classroom. We were Wisconsin children; freezing temperatures and icy conditions didn't slow us down. That playground was our domain, and we took advantage of it.

In the midst of our game of tag, the bell rang, signaling it was time to channel our chi, calm down, and get in line to retreat to the confines of the school building. I abruptly stopped running, unaware that my little pal, Joey Messenger, was hot on my trail and had not heard the bell. Upon seeing me stop, Joey seized the chance to tag me. Only what would have normally been a gentle shove morphed into a serious body slam, and I hit the ground, face first.

The pain blinded me, and when I was able to sit up, Joey began screaming at the sight of blood gushing from somewhere on my face. It turned my new, white mittens scarlet, and in that innocent way kids do, I was more concerned with ruining my pretty Christmas gift mittens than I was with the sensation that I was chewing on gravel.

Turns out I was chewing gravel. That collision tore my mouth up and caused my right eye tooth to slice completely through my upper lip. That tooth was literally sticking out through my top lip. And if you've ever seen or experienced a mouth injury, you know how profusely they bleed. Poor Joey stood by, sobbing and apologizing. I didn't want to hug my friend and get him bloody. But I remember telling him through my dazed tears that it was okay, I'd be fine.

I managed to hang on until my mom arrived to whisk me to the doctor's office. Clearly, I was a mess, because when she saw me, her eyes grew wild and her mouth fell open. But what really signalled the seriousness of the situation was her hair. Mom was in pink foam curlers, the kind you can sleep on. I can't stress enough how shocking this was. My mom never went anywhere without doing her hair, makeup, nails, and dressing nicely. I was always immensely proud of how she looked, despite the Marge Simpson hairstyle she favored. Mom was not a sloppy woman, so for her to show up in public looking like that, I knew I was in dire straits.

The injury required 3 stitches in my lip, but only after the doctor peeled it off my tooth, dug the gravel out of my gums and cheeks, and gave me anesthesia via a large needle through my lip. It was by far the worst accident of my childhood. I still bear the scar. Mom was pretty shook up, too. But I don't think it ever entered her mind to sue the school or Joey's folks. She understood what so many today seem to have forgotten: Sometimes things just happen.

But the point is, I survived the trauma, perhaps better than Joey did. Kids have accidents. They play hard, they sometimes suffer. I don't think this is a fact that translates into a problem needing a solution. If we want to keep our kids safe, how about keeping pedophiles locked up, revamping child protective services so that children don't die or suffer at the hands of their parents, or even simply having communities policed by local government employees for trash? I found last week, just outside our privacy fence, a used hypodermic needle as the kids and I were walking home from school. I've already told you how I often find used condoms, broken glass bottles, etc. on the journey to and from school. All of these pose serious health risks to our little people, and yet the problem remains.

I understand we live in litigous times. I get that some parents are off their rockers and punch each other out over grade-school sports, threaten teachers not to give their children failing grades (though they may be well deserved), and make spectacles of themselves in various and sundry ways. But haven't we taken enough away from our children already? Some of us allow them to sit in front of a TV screen for hours on end because at least that way they're not in our hair. We have no problem subjecting them to unceasing violence through the media. There are parents who willingly serve their minors alcohol while others choose to ignore the fact that their kids are sexually active. We are raising a generation of kids who have no sense of responsibility or accountability or even human decency. Shame has become taboo and a conscience is becoming nearly extinct. Seems to me we've forced our children to grow up way too fast as it is.

Do we really have the right to steal from them one more childhood activity? In a society that's increasingly lenient and unsupervised in ways it shouldn't be, and more strict and rule-oriented than it should be, what impact can such a limitation have on a population for whom days of innocence and simple fun grow shorter with each passing day?

Go to your local park, sit on a swing, and pump your legs until you're really high in the air. Then lean back and close your eyes and remember what it was like to be a kid. Let your stomach be tickled, your laughter escape as the wind blows your hair and brushes your face.

What you've got is simple joy. That is what will keep our kids safe.


rozenjoze said...

You know...this entry is just wonderfully written, like all your others, however this really hits a nerve.

I too recall the fun I had as a kid just playing games in the school yard, the back yard, the swimming pool and the local playground.

How I've made it to 44 years old, I'll never know.

I played on metal swing sets, didn't use a helmet when I rode my bike and climbed trees! We didn't have mulch or crushed tires under our playground equipment and when there was a problem between two kids in a neighborhood, our parents 'talked to each other.'

Through these exchanges, we learned to iron things out or we lost out. Parents in those days knew their kids weren't perfect angels.

Today all we want to do is place blame somewhere else and in an effort to restrict that and the litigation that comes with it, our elected officials have restricted the joys of childhood.

Judith K. Witherow said...

Nothing new to add. No child is born with the idea of creating mayhem as soon as possible. Society has steadily instilled a lack of values, and the knowledge that only someone who lacks a lawyer or is ignorant has to pay for mistakes.
We are losing the genuine fun of just being a child with restrictions that are of no consequence. Adults are steadily taking the fun out of just about everything innocent.
We have met the enemy and they are adults who are misinformed.

Diane Barnhart said...

I wish these folks would follow the guide lines of the American Academy of Pediatrics who last month Stated that kids need to PLAY! Not stuctured sit down play but real play like Tag, Dodgeball the kind that expends the energy wee need to burn calories and grow our bodies strong. The fun things we all remember doing as kids on the playground should not be lawfully removed from childhood by anyone.