Serious fun

One Sunday in September, my 10-year-old friend Isabelle and her pal Charlotte walked up and down our block, distributing invitations to a fall festival to be convened that evening in Isabelle’s backyard. There would be games, s’mores, and if the grownups got in the spirit, a potluck feast.

The girls spent the afternoon decorating the yard, setting out candle-holders and hounding Isabelle’s dad to prep his outdoor fire pit. When we set up camp chairs a couple of hours later, Charlotte’s mom’s chili almost made up for twilight’s early arrival.

Now, we live on a pretty terrific block populated by families willing to drop everything for an evening of kid-incited community-building, but Isabelle’s household takes the cheerily decorated cupcake. The Slip-n-Slide comes out when it gets hot, followed by popsicles. She and her mom, dad, and brother Owen carol as they carry their Christmas tree home from the local lot on foot.

No, they’re not members of a cult. I checked when it became clear my kids have more fun at their house than mine. Rather, I suspect their basement is populated by refugee Oompah Loompahs.

We lucked out, landing three doors from the Magic Kingdom. Still, like the well-intentioned, guilt-ridden, self-absorbed modern parent I am, I can’t help but take notes. Is our home not fun enough?, I wonder as I retrieve my wailing boys. Do you not have Legos, GameBoys, the Madagascar edition of Sorry, and enough guile to thwart my attempts to get you to clean your rooms?

I’m joking — and leaving out the normal, everyday stress that makes the neighbors’ lives not so different from yours and mine — to make a point: For grownups, play is a hot potato. There are wooden-toy families and Wii families and educational-game families, and they-haven’t-killed-each-other-yet families and really, given all of the potential divisions these types hint at, shouldn’t we do a little celebrating when the backyard is big enough for everyone in the neighborhood?

Much as adults idealize childhood as a time of perfect freedom, we also have a pesky tendency to embroider our agendas on children’s play. Before you get your knickers in a twist about your neighbors’ rules regarding screen time, please know that it’s been this way for hundreds of years, according to Brown University Professor Howard P. Chudacoff’s new book, Children at Play: An American History.

For adults, the definition of good play has varied over the centuries. In the 17th and 18th centuries, play was all but unknown by legions of children whose primary activity was insuring their own subsistence. Prosperous families favored Godly play that instilled obedience of spirit.

In the 19th century, the new nation came to see children as citizens. Since Junior was steward not just of a family’s survival but of the nation’s future, suddenly everyone was invested in his play. Fun entered the picture — so long as it was educational.

This attitude evolved further in the early 1900s, as experts came to agree that children’s desires should be channeled, not suppressed. Constructive play would keep kids safe from — wait for it — the temptations of gangs and sex. Reports Chudacoff: “Nostalgic for an idealized community of the close-knit family and the rural village, reformers romanticized about private homes, quiet neighborhoods, and untainted nature where children could play safely and soundly.”

That’s’ right — the parents of centuries past were just as safety obsessed as we are today. For instance, kite flying could scare horses and cause accidents. Warned Youthful Sports, an 1802 catalogue of games: “Blindman’s Bluff is rather dangerous play, unless it be in some open place or very large room. … If the blinded boy should fall down and break his nose, what then!”

For children, good play has always been about carving out some privacy from their worrywart elders. Back before the McMansion, or even the Little House on the Prairie, nature was often the only place children could escape adult agendas. Playing at home meant risking the intervention of parents who wanted games to rehearse adulthood: Dolls for sister and conquests for brother.

We’re going to get back to Isabelle in a moment, but not without considering what Chudacoff has to say about her gilded age, that of the electronic screen. Beyond violence and smut, adults have plenty of reasons to complain about the evils of television, computers, and all things digital, he suggests. Kids have to work to keep up with the storylines that unfold on screens, but the tales no longer start in their imaginations.

“TV and computers ironically accomplished what parents and educators had been trying to do for a century,” writes Chudacoff. “The electronic revolution did more than playgrounds, clubs, schools, and educational toys to divert many children from street games and undirected neighborhood play.”

Isabelle stands ready with an antidote, in the form of The Daring Book for Girls. The companion volume to The Dangerous Book for Boys, it’s an old-fashioned compendium of lore and DIY hints that add up to 279 pages of screen-free activity. There are instructions for making paper water bombs and rules for slumber-party games. There are sections on astronomy and fishing and making a bow and arrow.

These aren’t the first kids’ activity manuals. My generation and my parents’ absorbed much of it via Boy Scout and Girl Scout manuals. And Chudacoff makes reference to Daniel Carter Beard’s American Boys Handy Book, an 1882 guide to “what to do and how to do it.” Its instructions for making kites, fishing poles, blowguns, boats, and theatrical costumes and for raising dogs, stuffing animals, and stocking an aquarium proved so popular that in 1888 Beard’s sisters, Lina and Adelia, wrote the American Girls Handy Book.

The current girls’ version includes a fabulous selection of Abigail and John Adams’ letters to each other, revealing Abigail to be a great political thinker. There are thumbnail profiles of female spies in the Revolutionary War and a forthright discussion of negotiating pay rates — and raises! — for babysitting and first jobs.

My household’s copy of The Dangerous Book for Boys is bulging with Post-It notes. The boys have yet to convince me that building a tree house is as simple as it sounds (but Mom, there are pictures …), but they can build a paper airplane that turns, as well as one that flies straight. They can complain about me to each other in secret code and believe that they are the first kids ever to put one over on their parents.

And that’s surely what makes manuals like these so successful that they can capture the imaginations of kids born 150 years apart: They might be packed with things adults want kids to know, but they’re also ready-made for a true kid’s escape.

Beth Hawkins is a Minneapolis writer.

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