I’ve been pretty nostalgic over the last couple of weeks. So I thought it might be fitting to re-post something from The Old Blog (from July, 2007) that touches on several themes I have explored more recently here. This summer my kids are even more unstructured in their activities than they have been in the past. And we now live in a neighborhood where I feel comfortable letting them ride their bikes (in a restricted perimeter) unsupervised. We still do not stumble upon dog poo, though…
I was walking around one of our many lakes the other evening. The approaching night had cooled our 90 degree day to a more bearable 85, and the sun was turning the lower sky and upper water a mix of orange, purple and gold. On my walk I passed other walkers, babes in strollers, runners, bikers, rollerbladers, kids running ahead of their caretakers. And people walking their dogs.
All dogs were leashed. All owners were carrying bags of…poop. The Twin Cities’ “pooper scooper” laws must be very strict. At any case, people walking their dogs around the lakes are religious about picking up their pets’ droppings from sidewalk and lawn. Of this, I am grateful. I do not have to worry, when passing an adorable elderly couple strolling arm in arm by cutting across the grass, that I will squish into a steaming pile of poo. Yet at the same time I think this is–in some strange, ambiguous way–a loss for me. It has been ages since I have stepped in dog dung. At least as long as I have lived in the Twin Cities. Do I…miss this?
Joys and Perils of Bare Feet
When I was a child summers were for walking around outside without shoes on my feet. In fact, the first day of the season that it was warm enough to do this comfortably pretty much defined the start of summer. There was nothing like the feel of different surfaces on the soles of my feet: soft grass, hot bumpy pavement, smooth metal playground equipment, rough sifting sand.
The pleasures of this diverse tactility was balanced with the dangers of unshod feet. Chief among those dangers: dog doo-doo. There was no moment so regretful, so disheartening than when a step forward brought a squish of wetness spreading underneath my foot and blooming up through the spaces in my toes. O! The smell! O! The embarrassment! O! The impossibility of completely removing the stain by shuffling feet through grass! On any given play area, the discovery of a mound of foul matter was marked and announced to every kid on the grounds much like, I imagine, soldiers on the battlefield communicating the discovery of an active landmine.
My children, however, have not had to worry about stepping in dog droppings. I reflected on this yesterday as I watched them frolic, barefoot, in the grass behind our home. They are, instead, wary of the underground spigots for the sprinkler system. These things can cause a mean stubbed toe, according to my daughters.
Hmph. They do not know the half.
Another barefoot danger when I was a child were the discarded pop tops from canned beverages. The old kind. That came completely off of the can. These things were able to hide in tall grass or playground sand until they were ready to strike. Their business end was sharp, curved–like some exotic ninja weapon. When your bare foot trod upon one, you hoped that your relatively thick heel would take the blunt of the damage. Pity you if, instead, the instrument attacked the arch of your foot. Or worse: the delicate space between two of your toes.
I recall with much clarity one such injury I endured one summer. The pop-top made a nice neat slice into my foot at the base of my big toe. I hadn’t even realized I had cut myself until I noticed I was leaving bloody footprints all over the sidewalk. The wound healed in a bizarre fashion, leaving a large flap of independent skin that never reincorporated into the rest of my foot. Finally one day I think I just pulled the embryonic sixth toe off.
(Sprinkler spouts and stubbed toes? Sissies.)
The experience did not put me off of going out in bare feet. The blood prints on the sidewalk were my proud grafitti markings lasting until the next rains. They were proof of the price–well worth it–I had to pay for summer.
Getting What You Pay For
What is the “price” of summer for my kids today? Most of my daughters’ summer has been spent in formal, organized day camps. As such, the price tag has not been inconsequential–at least from a purely financial standpoint. I have been very satisfied with their camp experiences–especially a week-long science camp for girls we tried for the first time this year. And I know my kids have enjoyed themselves and learned a lot. In that sense, then, the price of their summer has been worth it.
But I wonder: what are they not getting that I did get during my youthful summers? For example, they likely have never known the freedom that I knew hanging out with my savvy independent inner city cousins all day without adult supervision. True, I never built working weather vanes and dulcimers during my summer vacations. But I did build with my sister and cousins “clubhouses” in the garbage dump out of discarded appliance boxes and sheet metal, furnishing the resulting strucures with old sofas and lawn chairs and packing crates. I never took a field trip to the state house to see Our Government in Action. But I did roam with my cousins to the corner store, pooling our money for some Pixy Stix and Now and Laters and ginormous pickles in glass jars by the cash register. One might say, Collective Economics in Action.
Now actually, my summers were not all freedom and lack of structure. For example, I vaguely recall something called “vacation bible school.” However, I seem to remember that this was less an organized camp experience than a bunch of kids of all ages thrown together on church grounds. I think self-organized kick and dodgeball games might have been involved outdoors; indoors, board games in tattered boxes and improvised rules to accommodate missing game pieces.
In general, what I “paid for” in summer was the opportunity to figure things out for myself. As well as the chance to just be. These things were not without cost–even as they may have been “free” to my parents. (In fact, I recall another foot injury–this time at the dump, involving a large nail and subsequent painful shots.) But, oh, the worth of it all!
One day this summer my kids’ camp had what they called “water day.” In the scorching heat, the adults had set aside structured learning in favor of hoses and sprinklers and wading pools. When I picked up the girls at the end of the day their clothes were covered in mud left over from the pies they had baked. Their faces were also painted with mud, along with highlights of popsicle juice in neon purple. There were twigs and mulch chips littering their hair. And they hadn’t looked so satisfied and happy all summer long.
Summers Lost–and Found
Actually, I think my daughters’ summers are fairly downsized compared to some of their peers. We have managed to find some balance between structure and non-structure. Of course, though, this is constrained by both my husband’s and my need to work and our lack of family living in the area. On non-camp days where we haven’t been able to cobble together other care options, my daughters go to work with me. On those days prior to leaving the house I give only one explicit piece of instruction: PACK YOUR BACKPACKS WITH ENOUGH STUFF TO KEEP YOURSELVES OCCUPIED FOR x HOURS.
They are generally successful at this, managing to stay out of my hair for hours at a time. Out of the corner of my eye I have witnessed quite elaborate playscapes populated by miscellaneous Happy Meal toys, paper clips and other office supplies, stuffed animals, and empty Juicy Juice cartons and bendy straws. I reward their independence by taking them to extended lunches on campus–maybe visiting one of the campus libraries or hanging out at the student union. We also take breaks to walk the halls, together reading the research conference posters hanging on the walls or the cartoons posted outside of profs’ office doors. I let them walk by themselves to the restroom down the hall. This in particular is a great if somewhat odd source of pleasure to them. They make several trips per office visit.
When we get home from “Mommy’s work,” I allow them to frolic to their hearts’ content outdoors. Barefoot. Yes, they are always within my sight. But I am careful to censor my opinions, observations, warnings, and admonishments and as much as possible just let them be. I even work up the expected concerned expression when they point out to me a particularly treacherous sprinkler spigot hidden in a patch of moss near our rock bed.
They have, however, yet to step in waste left by one of our neighborhood dogs. But hey–summer’s not quite over yet. There is still hope.