When children played

When children played April 17, 2015

Did you know there was a time when children on their own played games, sang songs, collected things, and had fun outside?

The Intercollegiate Review has posted an excerpt from the estimable Anthony Esolen’s book on child-raising (and how not to do it), Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child.

From Anthony Esolen, Can Playing Prepare You for Living? | Intercollegiate Review:

When I was a kid, television had already marched like Sherman to the sea, cutting a wide swath through a child’s day, with hardly a twisted railroad track or a burnt barn to show for it. We still had some games, which we passed along to the younger kids when they grew old enough to play.

No grown up that I recall ever sat us down to teach us the rules. These were apparently invented and altered by kids from generations past—in some cases from centuries past: Hide and Seek, Red Rover, Dodgeball, Jump Rope, Cops and Robbers, King of the Hill, Jailbreak, Crack the Whip, Leap Frog, War. Some were improvisations of one of the recognized sports: Five Hundred, Home Run Derby, Hit the Bat, Pepper, Pickle (baseball); Horse (basketball); Two-Hand Touch (with delayed rushing the quarterback; football). Probably someone thirty or forty years older than I might remember ten times as many games. These constituted a thread of memory linking the ages. Now, let us all thank the totalitarian school and electronic entertainment, most of these games are forgotten. A former student of mine, a retrograde Eagle Scout, told me that his Boy Scouts lacked the capacity to get up a game of anything; they didn’t know how to organize themselves, and they didn’t know any games to play.

Or songs to sing. This too comes as a surprise, but children used also to sing, in the days before the specialization and compartmentalization of everything—and before the three-tone compression of popular music had left most of them so tone deaf that “Happy Birthday” sounds to them as complicated as Chopin. Even the schools cheerfully enough encouraged it. . . .

Same thing for playing of musical instruments. Granted, many children learned how to play the piano or the violin by paid instruction. Most, however, did not: they could not, because there weren’t hundreds of thousands of music masters hanging about looking for work, and their parents hadn’t thousands of dollars to throw at them, either. So children learned to play music by watching, and hearing, and trying an instrument out for themselves: and this is attested to by accounts of people who played music but could not read it. The old Celtic fiddlers of Cape Breton did not read their thickets of arpeggios from a sheet. They heard them, remembered them, in their very arms and fingers, and passed along the memory to others who took up the instrument in turn. These things too formed no small part of a young person’s life. I don’t know who it was who invented the cigar-box banjo or the kazoo, either, but I’ll wager it was not Rachmaninoff.

We could go on in this vein for a long time. John J. Audubon roamed the woods as a lad and watched birds. He was a crack shot, and collected specimens. Many lads were crack shots. Some of these were taught by their fathers. Others taught themselves. Grownups did not take kids out for Slingshot Lessons. Maybe they taught them how to make a fish trap, or how to bait a line with a worm. Maybe they did not need to do that, because older brothers or neighbor kids had done the job already. Children collected butterflies, coins, stamps, arrowheads, feathers, rocks, and insects. They bought magazines and traded them with one another. They traded baseball cards. They played Rummy, Poker, Pinocchle, and Cribbage.

They mapped the woods. They learned bird calls. They foraged for nuts, and mushrooms, and berries. They jumped off bridges into streams. They rode freight trains. They needed no committees. They were alive.


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