“Children at the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind” by Harry L. Standley, 1927. Courtesy of Special Collections, Pikes Peak Library District. Image Number: 102-4798.

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Photo by Sean Cayton

In summer, we spent all day every day at the playground, risking, if not life, then certainly limb. Arms, legs, knees, elbows, ankles, wrists, necks, eyes, ears, noses, teeth and toes. We scrambled from monkey bars to swings to merry-go-round; dodgeball to kickball to horseshoes; through sudden afternoon thunderstorms, grueling heat, and swirling clouds of pale dust churned up by hundreds of flip-flopped, bare and tennis-shoed feet.

No fancy camp or expensive workout shoes for us in 1960s southern Kentucky, just a locked chest full of sports equipment, a college girl named Sandy who wore the key on a lanyard that swung between her perky breasts, and an elementary school playground that seemed to us as large and limitless as the universe. Summer Recreation, we called it, sponsored by the town and gloriously under-supervised.

Out here in the middle distance, I remember the freedom of those long, parentless days. I’m an old lady now, walking my dog to the neighborhood playground early in the morning for a game of fetch. One morning this week, when no one was watching, I let the dog go down the slide first, then I climbed the steps and slid down after him. I sat at the bottom wondering where the thrill had gone.

This slide had reasonably placed steps with corrugated shoe grips, not the slippery steel rungs I remember, and it extended about half the vertical height of the slides of my childhood. We slid down in trains, went head first on our stomachs, then head first on our backs, scraping the hot surface with our heels or toes to slow down. The climbers among us sometimes skipped the steps altogether and shimmied up the narrow metal support poles, arcing and propelling our bodies onto the skinny platform at the top, the lookout point for the whole playground, the Little League ball field, and the surrounding neighborhood. We felt like Tarzan in the treetops.

The swings beckoned just a few yards over, stretching the entire width of the brick outdoor wall of the school cafeteria. Long chains that could be twisted to a rolled knot, then released in a neck-wrenching spin. Hard seats that could be stood on or shared with a swinger perched backward between our feet. We pumped high, leaned back and dropped our heads. And we jumped. Skydivers without parachutes, we arched upward, then suffered the landing in the prickly grass: two feet, hands and knees, or a tumble and roll.

Occasionally someone got hurt and Sandy pulled out the Band-aids, bright orange mercurochrome, and a cool rag. Did anyone ever split their head open or break a bone? I don’t recall. I do recall holding the glass bottle with its glass applicator wand for Sandy so I could get a whiff of that antiseptic. Oh yeah, a little dab of mercury will do you …

Besides the tetherball pole that always had a long line of little kids waiting to get trounced by the bigger kids, the most popular spot on the playground was the merry-go-round, a heavy spinning octagon of wooden benches strung together with a cool spider web of smooth steel bars. The fastest runners and the tallest kids with the longest legs were dedicated pushers, getting the thing spinning, then jumping on at the last second for a ride. A heavy load meant more pushing and the merry-go-round never went fast enough to suit us. Stage two: We left the safe seat of the bench and climbed over the handrail to stand on one of the poles radiating from the center, holding onto a hand rail and occasionally dipping down to the ground to give a quick running push. Stage three: Standing astride two of the top rails and briefly going no hands, the world spinning madly by.

These were learned tricks, practiced in stages over a whole summer or several summers. We watched out for scared or uncoordinated or too small kids and warned them to hold on tight. We knew they could get hurt because we had been hurt ourselves. Once you’d fallen and had your breath knocked out, you didn’t want to see it happen again to anyone.

The monkey bars, an elegant open-air grid of steel poles, became our big city apartment building. We climbed straight to the top, the penthouse and the roof, where we pretended to sip tea or cocktails. From the top of the monkey bars we could see our flat little houses across the street, and our mothers sweeping the porches, a million miles and a lifetime away.

Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.


11 Responses to The Middle Distance, 7/13/12: The Parentless Days of Summer

  1. hannah says:

    For my brother and I, our summer playground was the dry, weedy hillsides and canyons by our southern California home. We’d forge trails and find secret hide-outs and have make-believe adventures sitting on the hot dirt in the meager shade. Once we found a termite mound and knocked off a bit to see the scurrying workers and wiggling larvae within. Another time we got covered with ants and ran yelling and laughing up to the house to dunk into the bathtub — little “anty-bodies” floated around us. Amazing that Mom never supervised our exploits, though my brother and I were still young enough to bathe together.

  2. rose enyeart says:

    We had a miniature playground in Breckenridge but enough to allow for a few broken bones and scraped knees. It was so much fun to slide, swing and jump off those swings. There was a bar where hanging upside down was great once you got it swinging hard enough. There was not supervision and ball was played if someone brought their ball and a bat. Dirty, laughing children. Playing and running and free.

  3. Mary Ellen Davis says:

    Our requirement, we had to be home for dinner. What happens to a generation of kids who grow up w/out danger?

  4. sharon berthrong says:

    Our playground was our yard and a (river) really a creek about a mile away from our house. We would fix peanut butter sandwiches and take bottles of milk from the refrigerator and spend all day there. Six of us, coming home about 5, full of leeches, sunburns and hunger. No one checked on us all day and not once did anything untoward happen. Ahhhh what freedom.

  5. Paul Richardson says:

    I attended a one room rural school in Michigan through 6th grade. During the school year we always played hard during morning and afternoon recesses and at noon. No supervision except older kids looking out for the younger ones. In the summer we would roam the farm’s woodlots on our own with usually a friend or two. Lots more reliance on ourselves in those times and the lessons learned added to our self-confidence and sense of self-directed activities. Today’s kids are over supervised and protected so they aren’t allowed to grow.

  6. Cate Boddington says:

    Oh, Kathryn, one again you strike a chord with those of us who grew up in the days, just barely post-agricultural(at least in that new concept- the suburbs) when every authority on child care and children’s growth knew that three months of free outdoor play from kindergarten through junior high-in high school you were expected to get a job or, at least, babysit- were more important than Wonder Bread in “Building Strong Bodies Twelve Ways!” Summer sunshine and sunrise to sunset unsupervised activity made healthier, more independent, more creative, imaginative and athletic children than kids who to school year ’round are today. It’s a wonder that kids…and parents…can stand a full year of driving hot, cranky children and all their various “play” equipment around from school to lessons with only small “vacation” breaks. We kids of the fifties and sixties roamed the foothills of Skyway, collected loose change from the couch cushions and rode our bikes to 7/11 to buy candy, fished in the marsh for frogs, climbed over fences and up trees and indulged, as Kathryn wrote, in the freedom of the unsupervised playground of the schoolyard.When we got hurt, we went snuffling to somebody’s house for a bandaid. One parent(in those days, yes, they were Moms) could give us a bandaid without needing a consent form.And sometimes we too a brake from all that activity and just lay on the lawn staring up at the clouds in bliss, or read a library book in a cool basement bedroom. So WHAT if our nation’s children don’t test like the Chinese or the Koreans?Do we really want to be China or Korea? I don’t believe for a minute the justification that it is a big problem for teachers that, supposedly, after a summer of no school, children start the next grade a full semester behind. So, catch them up! What is education…a race?? I pity the children who spend their summers indoors in classrooms.Growing minds need the freedom to explore and discover independently;growing bodies need self-pacing exercise- ALL DAY- sunshine, and growing Americans need to feel like Queen of the Monkey Bars with no scolding authoritarian telling them it’s unsafe! Thanks, Kath!~

  7. John Glue says:

    My legs were allergic to nature when I was a boy.

  8. Jen Ghoul says:

    I used to shadowbox with evil spirits in Little Britches Playground Park (off of Murray Blvd near Roosevelt Edison Charter) back in my homeschool days. People must have thought that I had quite the imagination but I don’t think that they understood what was at stake.

  9. Jay Gunhole says:

    my real -education- was from ruffhousing on the street and behind the old storeage building behind my familyhood home. this US ARMY is my home & storige building now Becase my mom dident try to stop me from bieng a f*%@ing KID!

  10. My daughter, now 50 and a teacher, remarked the other day that playing unsupervised for hours at a time with the neighborhood kids–mostly boys then–taught them all how to negotiate, compromise, and work together for the good of the group. She laments that the students she teaches today lack those very skills that are foundational to adult living. What a shame.


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