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The Power of Play

March 8, 2018

img_0152At recess, our teachers set us free onto an asphalt playground as big as the sea and school grounds stretching endlessly around it. Alexander Hamilton Elementary sat on acres of land—an area too vast to cover in the time we had to play. Choices were necessary, and we had so many of them.

Behind the building, a paved parking lot held brightly painted four-square boxes, a row of hopscotch lanes, and four half-court basketball goals with boundaries and keys marked in yellow paint. Beyond the parking lot lay playground equipment simple enough to fuel imaginations—a jungle gym of steel gray bars with bits of rust we turned into a ship, a jail, a dog kennel, a zoo, or a rocket. I fell for what seemed like forever once from where I had perched on the very top bar in the crow’s nest, and had to leave recess early to let the nurse check my bones. She pronounced briskly that I’d only knocked the wind out of me, a phrase I pondered for its strangeness. Until then, I didn’t know I’d carried wind inside my rib cage.

Grass struggled to grow under the monkey bars—horizontal steel ladders in the air we went skimming across dangling by one hand. We never worried about falling. It felt good to drop to the ground, absorbing the shock with your knees, to check that your skirt was hiked down over the shorts you wore to hide your underpants, and rub sore palms against your aching armpits.  The old rusty merry-go-round surrounded by a ring of rutted dirt was dangerous when the eighth grade boys took over. They could get it spinning so fast the world blurred. We stayed back and watched them with round eyes, thrilled by their strength and rough talk. They taught us about danger and caution.

Swings blew in the wind on two steel sets, and beyond them grew a strand of oak and maple trees with gnarled roots that met the earth to create fascinating homes for acorn fairies we imagined. We built additional tiny dwellings there with twigs and leaves, busily discussing magic. Shade patches on the grass changed shape with the angle of the sun, and on hot days, we sank into their inviting coolness to rest and tie clovers or dandelions together into necklaces and crowns. Occasionally someone found a lucky four-leaf clover, and others gathered around to vet its authenticity or pronounce it fake as we jiggled pinched fingers to see if an extra leaf fell to the earth, rendering the extraordinary just another clover after all.

Farther to the west, a kickball game was always in progress on the “good” baseball diamond and on the uneven weedy football field, kids ran races and played tag. Some group was always throwing a rubber playground ball against the building while classmates with feet pinned bravely to the sidewalk tried to dodge without flinching. When they threw you out in kickball or hit you with the dodgeball, the loud smack covered your whimper and the stinging red mark would stay all afternoon. We played anyway, building playground courage every day.

Beyond the football goalpost, a huge unmowed meadow stretched until the nearest houses took over with their grassy yards. The field was full of gullies, rocks, twisted old tree limbs, broken bottles, trash, rabbit nests and mice…and probably ticks and spiders and snakes. But the recess duty teachers posted themselves way back on the parking lot and near the kickball diamond, and simply let us roam. We mashed the tall grass down into nests and built forts, “raided” each other’s territories and shrieked with glee as we snatched their treasure—a glass bottle or an elegantly-twisted piece of wood—and ran with it back to the safety of our own grass walls. A large boulder at the edge of the field grew warm in the sun, and I remember lying with my cheek pressed to the sparkling quartz stone soaking up the heat from it in my light blue windbreaker. The field’s twisted paths and mounded bumps of dirt were places we returned on weekends with our bikes to “ride the hills” and dare each other to take the tracks at top speed. Later, when the field was sold to a developer, we rode there to explore construction sites—clambering up open stairs and rappelling into newly poured basements.

On wet days, we left the fields and grass areas alone. Mud pooled in them, and dirty footprints made our teachers cross. “Stay on the blacktop today,” they called out before tweeting their whistles to set us free from our classroom lines. We jumped rope and made up games. I loved Statues. The “Swinger,” spinning furiously in a circle, held you by one arm, then let go to send you spinning off, dizzy and stumbling against the centrifugal force of your movement. You had to freeze as you landed, your mind furiously working to imagine what you would become when the “Buyer” pressed your nose to bring you to life. Would you be a robot? A ballerina? A lion? A queen? What would the Buyer most want to choose? If selected, you’d become the new Buyer…a peaceful transition of power no one questioned.

Together we created games, a dozen new versions of tag. In my favorite, you tried to elude the person who was “It” but you couldn’t step off the painted lines of the basketball courts. We proclaimed a “no reverse” rule so you couldn’t change direction once you started down a line segment. Eventually we revised the game further, and the bars across each free throw line became “free zones” where you could change course if you could scurry there fast enough before you were caught and frozen by “It.” I remember my mind working furiously as I tried to calculate the intersection of my friend speeding to “unfreeze” me and the rapidly approaching “it” who could render her helpless. Playground geometry in motion.

We laughed hard in those days. The playground was a stage to play out every story. Jump ropes could be jumped, swung low to trip those leaping over them, knotted to poles to take people prisoner, or turned into reins for horses. Sometimes I was a neighing thoroughbred racing like the wind dragging a shrieking classmate behind me. Sometimes I was the “rider” pulled along yelling, “Whoa! Whoa!” Anne Wilson was the fastest girl runner. She beat everyone in sprints to the grass from the imaginary start line we drew with our feet. The fastest boy title changed regularly. Once we had Anne race a boy while we lined the course everyone agreed was a fair distance. When she won, we all cheered and the girls felt a little faster that day.

As we grew older, we practiced playground flirtation. You let a boy know you liked him by running up behind him and stealing his hat off his head, then darting off giggling while he chased you to get it back. Over and over we’d repeat this trick, so you had to choose carefully whose hat you snatched. If your target was too obvious, people made up chants and rhymes with your names in them together. Strategy mattered.

We feel into patterns of our own making. Chinese jump rope was all the rage until it wasn’t, but for a while I worked hard at home to master “ankles” so I could move up to “kneesies” and amaze everyone like long-legged Kelly Watkins. Double Dutch went on alongside regular jump rope, so everyone could play. If you got stuck being a twirler for too long, you complained and dropped your end of the rope until fairness prevailed. Clacker balls on strings drove everyone crazy until someone brought jacks and a rubber ball from her Easter basket to school and started a movement. For one entire month, we played “Baby” with some of us assigned to be the children of the ones who played “Mother.” We acted out family life together. Some mothers were harsh; others let too much go. Those of us playing babies knew how to take advantage of their lack of knowledge. And they grew wiser.  In second grade, we engaged in “Puppy” and went around barking and yipping at the fifth graders until they either adopted us or begged the recess teacher to keep us away from them. When the puppies started digging in the giant sandbox area next to the playground, Mrs. McKee declared an end to it. She never seemed worried about the sand crawling with bacteria embedded under our fingernails; the custodian just didn’t like us tracking onto the doormats by the boiler room doors.

Snow in northern Indiana comes often and stays till March in giant piles pushed by ploughs to the edge of parking lots. By December, we could stand in line to get a running start to slide on shiny ice slicks left behind on the blacktop. Cathy broke her wrist when she fell, and we all signed her pink cast. We called the little fenced kindergarten playground “the playpen.” It jutted from the building two floors above the parking lot, and the long grassy hill that sloped up to meet it was slick and snow-covered all winter long. We couldn’t bring sleds to school, but your nylon snow pants, once wet, were perfect for sliding to the bottom where we sometimes landed in big piles of each other. We made rules about not going “boots first” into anyone’s stomach. No one broke them. Teachers watched benignly in their fur-trimmed snow boots and recess coats, twirling their whistles as we clambered our way up six foot snow piles ringing the hopscotch area and shoved down anyone who thought to claim sovereignty. Sometimes the shoving got rough, but no one respected any King of the Mountain who got there by hurting people, so we tempered ourselves. The big boys had their own part of the snow mounds where they could push each other harder, and we respected borders.

The sound of several long, shrill whistles blown at once recalled us three times each day to line up to go inside. Our teachers, fresh from a smoke, lunch in the lounge, or a coffee-laced gossip would come outside and count their classes to make sure no one was still off playing in the fields or on the edge of the school grounds where a drainage ditch emptied into a stagnant pond full of tadpoles and minnows. Once I was with a group who wandered that far, playing in reeds and cattails following the calls of frogs.  We didn’t hear the recess whistle. Only when we glanced back at the playground devoid of all life, school windows staring back at us like blank eyes, did we panic, racing to the back doors of the building and slipping inside. My teacher simply frowned when I breathlessly joined the line outside the drinking fountain. I never wandered so far and so carelessly again.

I remembered all these things last week as I sat watching my nephew’s flag football game in the Sunday afternoon sunshine. The game was close and tense—a league championship after a long season. The records of these teams were excellent according to the parents who clued me in so I could properly appreciate the talent before me. This competition would determine who would claim the gold plastic trophies lined up on the table under a canopy where a mother kept score by flipping the numbers on a stand-up chart. Adult referees joked with the father coaches good-naturedly as they griped about calls. During whistled time-outs, coaches ran onto the field with whiteboards to draw plays for the kids huddled around them. The quarterback on one team wore a Velcro wrist corsage with a list of the team’s strategic options so he could call them out if, for some reason, his coach became too incapacitated to direct their movements. Fortunately, he never had to use it; all the adults were able to perform their roles without help. Fouls were called, and mistakes pointed out. Exhortations to run faster, try harder, and throw better helped direct the children’s hands and feet in ways that drew applause or groans from their audience. We sat in lined-up canvas chairs watching their every move or paced the sidelines…each grown-up’s chance for happiness hanging on the next play. A mother next to me covered her face and couldn’t watch at one point. She was too nervous. Would the kids’ efforts render us victors or losers? At the end, one team won and the other lost. All the players lined up reflexively to shake hands and claim their snacks—years of practice conditioning them to know exactly how. Parents packed up the tents and chairs and coolers and water and flags and balls and nylon belts. They headed to the cars, dissecting the game’s ups and downs with their offspring and one another. Winning parents tried to graciously conceal their delight and model compliments to the losers; losing parents consoled themselves and their children by talking about next year and one play near the game’s end when the refs missed calling a foul that everyone clearly saw. Oh well. Baseball just started. Every weekend will bring a chance to try again for victory. The kids called good-byes to each other and hopped in cars to head home. Play time was over for today.

I watched them. And my heart ached for recess.


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  1. David Rosenstock permalink

    Just found this, Jenny. I recall much less – but I was there with you just about every day at Hamilton School. Well done, thanks!

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