Growing up—still an ongoing process—I don’t recall anyone ever telling me how or when to play or whether I was playing too much. My parents encouraged me to read and to get good grades, of course, but I was a nerdy kid who would have done so anyway. Play was just something I did, as natural as breathing or falling on my face.
One time, I played with a shovel and dug for hours in the bare soil behind the shed. As the hole got deeper and my head vanished beneath the surface, I became a paleontologist searching for dinosaur bones. Why not? They could be down there, I thought, waiting for me to discover them. All I had to do was dig. Maybe I would reach the other end of the world. Just imagine—a tunnel through the earth.
Then I found it. It was a birdlike skull and backbone of some strange creature. It had to be a dinosaur. The fact that it didn’t appear to be fossilized and came out of the earth so readily didn’t matter. Part of the game, you see, was to believe. For a few minutes, I reveled in the joy of discovery.
Suddenly a stern voice intruded. “What are you doing?” my dad asked. “And why are you holding that chicken bone?”
Gone was my dream of a new dinosaur or reaching China. Shaking his head, he helped me climb out of the hole. It was not the first time his son had done something stupid. Then he pointed to the hole. “Now get it filled before supper!”
It was a long afternoon. Filling the hole was nowhere near as much fun as digging it. It did teach me a lesson, though. Finding dinosaur bones in your backyard is not that easy.
I remember something else as well. The fact that I had dug a deep and potentially dangerous hole that I could have fallen into didn’t seem to bother my dad. He didn’t stick around to help or watch over me. You dug it, you fill it.
It does seem that since the 1950’s, the period when I at least started to grow up, kids have far less time for unsupervised play, especially outdoors. Increasingly they are protected from dangers, real or imagined, and prodded to take on more organized activities or to study harder. They certainly wouldn’t be allowed to dig a deep hole in the backyard.
“When does a kid ever get to sit in the yard with a stick anymore?” asked George Carlin. Speaking of sticks, Jonathan Winters was known to improvise with any object handed to him. On the Late Show, Jack Paar once gave Winters a stick and off he went, pretending to be everything from a fisherman to a lion tamer. Which brings me to my own stick adventures.
One day, after my third grade geography class, I couldn’t wait to get home so I could reenact the lesson. It was about a remote native tribe in Brazil, New Guinea, or somewhere, and how they fashioned spears, bows, and arrows out of branches in the jungle to kill the animals they ate or to protect themselves from other tribes. It was a glorious time to be a kid. You didn’t run home after school to watch TV. Many families still didn’t have one, and both the television sets and program selections were dismal. So you ended up creating your own entertainment from whatever popped into your head.
I gathered my gang of friends. There were two or three of us boys, accompanied by the minister’s daughters who lived across the street. Since it was my idea, I got to set the stage, followed by the inevitable squabbling over who gets to play what. We were already into costume. Shorts and no shirts for boys, shorts and blouses for girls. We fashioned our weapons out of whatever sticks we could find. One girl made a bow, with some featherless arrows that never went anywhere. Most of us simply made spears. I had a ready-made one, the shaft of a toy wooden golf club, from which I had removed the head. Sharpening our lethal weapons, we set off into our neighborhood jungle.
After terrorizing some neighbors’ dogs and killing scores of imaginary beasts and tribal foes, we were about to set off into the next yard when a towering, fearsome giant appeared, blocking our path. Scared out of our wits, we froze in our tracks. Actually, it was my buddy Mike’s dad, who at six foot three did seem like a giant to us. Proud of his physique, he was shirtless as usual. With muscled arms folded across his hairy chest, he glowered with menace.
“What the heck are you guys doing? Do you want to kill someone?” At that point, he grabbed my little golf spear and pointed at its well-sharpened tip. “Look at that. You could put someone’s eye out with that.” Then he broke it across his knee, and did likewise with the other weapons. Game over.
He had no right to do that, I thought. But I was not about to argue with him. Had to admit, it was not the wisest thing for us to be doing, and he was just redirecting our play into safer channels.
Most of the time, however, there was little playtime supervision. I adored kindergarten. I remember sprawling out on the floor and playing with blocks with my pal Steve, building tall structures perpetually in danger of falling on our heads. Besides the traditional-sized blocks, there were also these polished timbers, sort of like 2 x 6’s, with which we made long tunnels snaking across the room. Then we would crawl through them, exploring the dark passages we had made. Our teacher, bless her heart, pretty much left us alone. I can’t imagine a kindergarten teacher today ever allowing students to engage in such hazardous construction.
In the same kindergarten room, there was also a full-size dollhouse that you could walk through and play, well, whatever. There were never any boys in there besides me. It wasn’t that boys weren’t allowed. But I was intrigued. A whole house where you could go inside and play. I can’t remember exactly what we played, but I do recall the girls and I had some lovely parties.
It was simple curiosity on my part. I wanted to know what exactly you did in a dollhouse and if it might be fun.
It was the same when I briefly took up playing with dolls. I watched girls as they cuddled and cared for their dolls. Could I be missing something? I had to find out.
So for a while, I had my own baby doll, doing all the things you’re supposed to do. I never tried breast-feeding, however. There were limits. I still saw myself as a boy trying out something new.
No one ever told me I couldn’t, except for my Uncle Johnnie, who took me fishing once and warned me against the dangers of playing with dolls. The fact that none of the other boys in the neighborhood played with dolls didn’t bother me. However, my friend Tommy’s dad—a real he-man kind of guy—sternly informed me that my dolls and I were no longer welcome in his backyard. Guess he didn’t want me infecting his sons.
The interesting thing about this episode is my discovery that there were other kinds of dolls besides infant ones. Once, playing dolls with my two girl cousins, I noticed one of the dolls had a decidedly different look about it. She had a shapely figure, with breasts! She wore high heels and a tight-fitting dress, and underneath it was a bra and girdle. Playing with this doll made me all warm and weird inside. From that day foreword, my doll-playing days were over. I had discovered sex.
As a young kid growing up in a strict Catholic family, I could only imagine sex, of course. There was only one kind of play that was forbidden to me, and that was to play with myself. You’d burn in hell if you touched yourself down there. And to play with other kids in that way was unthinkable.
But kids always find a way. They play doctor, for instance. I remember getting my first doctor set at Christmas. My first patients were the minister’s daughters across the street. I put on my stethoscope and called the first girl into my office. Her name was Barbara. She was in my class, and every day I walked her home from school. We had a thing for each other, but there was never anything physical. We were too shy to even hold hands. But that day, she did something unexpected. She took off her blouse, baring her naked chest for examination. I took one look and nearly fainted. Then, sputtering an excuse, I grabbed my doctor set and ran home. It took me many years before I could look at a girl’s bare chest again.
When not playing dolls or doctor, I played with toy guns. Six-guns, derringers, rifles, shotguns—I loved them all, especially my tommy gun. You pulled back its bolt and it made a high decibel rat-tat-tat that was music to my ears and drove everyone crazy. I’d run from room to room, firing off my gun and mowing down imaginary enemies until some relative would yell, “Get outta here, you’re driving me crazy!”
Growing up on westerns and war movies, guns were always part of my childhood. Later, there were BB and pellet guns, with which I shot starlings and other unfortunate creatures. For a brief time, I even played with real guns, plinking at tin cans in the woods, until I outgrew them.
All through my teens, I loved to take long solitary hikes, imagining myself a mountain man. I would pack a knapsack and strap on a fearsome-looking hunting knife, trekking down my suburban street as if setting off for the wilderness. In those days, while you weren’t allowed to walk down the street with a real gun on your hip, no one gave a second thought to a kid packing a Bowie knife in plain view.
Numerous studies have pointed to the importance of play in childhood. Kids will always play, though in new and different ways. In the future, they won’t need sticks or toy guns anymore, when they can just touch the screen on a computer and make whatever 3D-printed object they desire. They won’t need dolls, when they can act out their fantasies with realistic robots of any age or sex. They won’t need an imagination when they can step into a virtual reality holodeck and set the controls for whatever place and time period they wish to visit. It’s a good thing those things weren’t around when I was growing up. I never would have come out.
Meanwhile, I feel a sudden urge to go out and play, maybe dig a big hole. Too bad I live in an apartment.