[NOTE: This is the first of two articles on exposing kids to stories about neighborhood play. This one focuses on why. The next one focuses on how.]
Parents who tell stories of their childhoods to their children are often ridiculed. A common caricature is the old dad or grandfather lecturing his kids about how easy their lives are, saying something like, “When I was your age, I used to walk ten miles to school in the snow in my bare feet!” To complete the picture, kids sit around Dad rolling their eyes at each other, holding back snickers. So, in popular culture, storytelling parents are considered out of touch with their children’s lives, and their stories are considered obsolete and irrelevant to the lives of children today.
Similarly, media depictions of childhoods past are often considered quaint but irrelevant. For instance, Leave it to Beaver is often singled out as portraying an unrealistically wholesome, innocent version of childhood.
Nonetheless, I think parents should make a habit of exposing their children to stories of neighborhood play. Why? Children need to overcome the biases they encounter against neighborhood play among school friends and in the media. School friends from other neighborhoods won’t “get” the fact that a neighborhood could be so fun that someone would actually want to play there rather than participate in multiple structured activities (e.g. organized sports teams). In addition, the media, especially social networks and multiplayer games on the Internet, demand many hours per day from their participants.From this perspective, neighborhood play can be seen as a personal “value” just like other values that parents wish to instill in their children – e.g. perseverance, compassion, honesty, etc. Educational experts generally agree that one of the best ways to teach children values is through stories. (The other common way parents teach values to their children is by setting an example. In the case of neighborhood play, parents do this by becoming active members of the neighborhood.) This is true whether the values are Christian or Jewish or Hindu or Muslim or secular humanist or Chinese communist.
My father’s stories of play in an impoverished urban environment had a big impact on me as a child. He and his friends were quite resourceful, and I aspired to be as resourceful as they were. My friends and I built many shacks, and looking back, I believe I drew a great deal of inspiration for them from his stories of the shack he told me he and his friends built in the alley behind his house. In addition, his stories of breaking his nose three times alerted me to the dangers of roughhouse play, but also to the fact that injuries are a fundamental part of an active, fun childhood.
I formed many of my first ideas of what to do with my free time outside home from watching Leave it to Beaver. I can still recall the Beaver’s detour-filled walks home from school, his visits to his friend’s houses, and his visits to the fire station. I had watched this show so much as a young child that, when I first started playing outside independently and a bit later, when I first walked to school, I often thought of what he had done in similar situations.