This past Monday, I was driving past our neighborhood school at lunch time and saw something I had not seen in a year: children playing. Outdoors. On the school property. Lots of them. On their own. They were chasing balls and chasing each other. Some were sitting in pairs on the grass, some were walking around on their own, and some were involved with games on the blacktop. In the 27 years we have lived in our neighborhood, I’ve gone by the school almost every day, but it’s been a year since I’ve seen children playing at noon recess.
Tears came to my eyes.
The wonder of seeing children at play brought to my mind my experience in Vienna last January. In the Kunsthistorisches Museum, I entered a room and saw “Children’s Games” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, painted in 1560. It looked mildly interesting at first. Then I read it depicts children playing 80 different games. I was transfixed. 461 years later, are any of these games familiar to you?
- Playing with dolls
- Shooting water guns
- Wearing masks
- Climbing a fence
- Doing a handstand or somersault
- Blind Man’s Bluff
- Making soap bubbles
- Walking on stilts
- Riding a hobby horse made from a stick
- Rolling a hoop (now, thanks to Whamo, a hula hoop)
- Balloons (before latex, made from a pig’s bladder)
- Tiddlywinks or Mumblety-peg
- Pulling hair
- Playing marbles
- Catching insects
- Riding piggyback or on a broom
- Putting on a play
- Climbing a tree, swimming or diving
- Running a gauntlet
And as Brueghel was committed to portraying life as it is lived, he also includes:
- “Stirring excrement with a stick” (!) and “urinating.”
(For a larger image, the other 54 activities and a visual guide to each one, go to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Children%27s_Games_(Bruegel))
Some of the games in the painting are not as familiar, including imitating the religious rituals of the time. And as we know, kids around the world are making new games every day.
I’m still struck by the joy and ingenuity of the children in the painting. I remember similar delights I experienced in my youth, and the enthusiasm of the children I saw playing freely at their school on Monday after a year of Zooming and confinement.
Video games have become a huge attraction in our time. But leave kids on their own outdoors, and their imagination flourishes.
I recall a church family weekend campout some years ago. Kids who already were becoming hooked on digital entertainment were in nature for the weekend with unstructured time and only their imagination to draw on. I remember watching two of them spend 40 minutes with a half-full plastic water bottle. They were tossing it, kicking it, watching it tumble and laughing time after time…no screens or batteries required.
In Proverbs 8 the poet is speaking of the presence of wisdom and creativity at the center of the natural world:
The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of long ago….
When he established the heavens, I was there,
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a little child (or “master worker”)
and I was daily God’s delight,
rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the human race. (Proverbs 8: 22, 27-31)
As we gradually emerge from the COVID pandemic, I hope we will never take for granted the creativity at the center of life, visible in all its splendor when we see children at play.
I may go out and enjoy stirring some feces with a stick today! Maybe near Lake Los Carneros, where we enjoy walking every week or so. Ernie
Sent from my lawn sprinkler
As your big sister, I clearly remember you riding around on your hobby horse Cocoa Milk which you named because of your habit of asking for chocolate milk before bed time.
Great memories of childhood, Steve. Every school day I get to watch the kids at play outside my office. It is very uplifting to see such joy and freedom. Thank you.
It is a singular joy. Thanks for your comment, Cragg.
As a child of the late 1940s, I wholeheartedly agree with your piece. I believe we do our children a disservice by giving them all the latest and greatest electronic gadgets. Absolutely nothing beats a long walk, a bike ride , kicking a can down the path or sitting on the Mesa enjoying the sights- except maybe the the Dodgers winning over the Giants! (Ok that last bit was made with you in mind, Steve)
Oh and be home when the streetlights come on.
When my folks moved to Plymouth Village retirement community in Redlands, (sister to Valle Verde), the only negative thing my mom ever mentioned was not being able to hear the kids playing outside in their old neighborhood. Karen and I experience that here at VDM except when we walk by a recently re-opened private school nearby.
Re: “climbing fences”, during my grade school years, we lived on a very “long block”, no cross streets for five blocks. My friends and I used to climb the wall in my back yard, and then negotiate those five blocks by walking on other walls, fences, and climbing onto garage rooves. Over all the years we did this, I don’t recall ever falling, getting yelled at or told to “get out’. I know the home owners saw us because we saw and waved to them. Can’t do that anymore, but can still play.