Technology Dominates Modern Life and Takes Over What Once Was Child’s Play

John J. Hohn, Writer and Reviewer

#boardgames #radio #midwest #cowboymovies

One of the joys in living in the mountains during the summer is that we escape from a lot  of the technology that dominates our lives. Mobile phones often do not work. Radio reception is unpredictable. We do not need air conditioning. We sleep with the windows open and snuggle under the covers because the temperatures can dip down into the lower 50’s. Being open to the out of doors throughout the day also reminds me of how out of touch with the nature most of us have become. In our air conditioned homes, shut up with windows down and doors closed, we do not feel the breezes moving through the house. We do not hear the birds and let their songs be a backdrop to whatever tasks we may have around the house. Even the aromas are blocked from entering the home – the smell of wood smoke in the  fall and spring, of leaves burning, of freshly mown grass, the air itself after a rain, honeysuckle and lilac.

As a boy growing up in the Midwest, long before air conditioning was considered a necessity, my family contended with the heat in the summer as best we could. On the hottest nights, Dad would bring a mattress down from an upstairs bedroom and put it on the floor in the entry hall in the front of the house.

My brother, sister and I would lie down so that we could look out the through the screen to the front door that was left open all night. We could hear the birds singing their evening songs as the dusk yielded to the darkness coming in from the east. In the morning, we would awaken to the sound of the neighborhood stirring to begin new day – a street sweeper passing along the curb, cars gliding past, a lawn mower in the distance, a carpenter at work, and doors slamming up and down the block. We felt the cooler, moist air of the early morning and knew that it was a treat that would not last throughout the day. By noon, our bare shoulders would exude a salty dry scent from the heat, and our bare feet would be covered the brown dust from the yard.

The Back Porch To My Boyhood Home, Yankton, SD

“Don’t slam the door,” mothers would yell. The command was ignored most of the time as kids raced out of the house to join friends or returned for a meal time. Every screen door on the block had its own distinctive sound, its signature. With the windows open to the outdoor air, they could be heard opening and closing any where in the neighborhood. “Edith must be home,” mother would say upon hearing the screen door slam at the back of the Caldwell home two doors down from us. “I need to talk to her.”

Nobody wanted to be in the house on the hottest days of summer. When a hot spell came along, mother would close all of the windows down to about two inches above the sill. Then she would pull down the shades so that the light in the house took on a dull brown hue which had the effect of making the air seem cooler. Housework stopped. Cooking stopped. The laundry probably got done because the laundry room was in the basement where it was always cool and damp.

Cowboys and Outlaws

Two Tough Hombres — My Brother and I in front of Our Boyhood Home.

Doors were never locked during the day. Children played outside and ran from one yard to the next unimpeded by fences or other barriers considered necessary today for privacy. Playing cowboys and outlaws, the sheriff and his posse could chase holdup a holdup gang all over the block, charging from one neighbor’s porch to the next as one served perhaps as a bank, a second as a saloon. Mock fist fights would break out — just like in the movies. We didn’t exactly run, either; we galloped with a hitch in our stride to imitate the motion of being on a horse. Not only that, but guys provided their own musical accompaniment. Don de don, de don don or similarly nonsense inspired lyric was on each players lips. We sang our own accompaniment as in the background music in the films. Each of us saw ourselves as a favorite movie cowboy, perhaps Tim Holt, Gene Autry, the Cisco Kid, Hopalong Cassidy or Roy Rogers.

The girls did not usually join in. If any one of them did, she quickly became labeled a “Tomboy,” a tag that made her acceptable but hardly welcome into our improvised drama with all its gunfights, ambushes and stage holdups. Perhaps it was an early start at learning the conventions of inequality; our parents certainly lived out lives that treated women as in a subordinate to men.

The girls had their own games. They played with dolls and dollhouses, and sometimes sneaked away from the house in high heeled shoes that were several sizes too large. They collected movie star photos and cooed over their favorites. Paper doll cutouts came in dime store albums with a wardrobe of cutout clothes, a two dimensional forerunner to Barbie and Ken.

Rather be Caught Dead

A boy would rather be caught dead be seen playing with the girls. Perhaps on a rainy day, inside the house where none of the other guys could see him, a brother might agree to play “Dad” to his sister’s imaginary family. Otherwise, we all kept our distance, sometimes extending it even farther it by teasing the girls from a distance.

Girls were good at jacks, a game that kids would benefit from today for the eye to hand coordination that it teaches. They also skipped rope and mapped out a hopscotch pattern with chalk on the sidewalk and played it.

The Front Hall to My Boyhood Home Where Dad Put the Mattress (Contemporary Photo)

If the boys and the girls ever came together to play, it was usually on more gender neutral activities like game boards or card games. Monopoly, El Dorado*, (as kids we knew nothing of Spanish and pronounced the game as “El door a dough”) Chinese checkers and Rich Uncle were popular board games. Card games included Rook, Old Maid, Authors, and Touring. There was no television. iPods, X-boxes, laptops were so far in the future that none of us imagined that we would ever seen anything like them in our lifetimes. On a summer day, when nobody wanted to be in the house, games would be spread out on an open porch, and the participants sat on the floor or “on their haunches” to roll the dice and count out their turns.

Only the future will tell how the activities of the children today will influence their adult lives and their communities. The way they spend their playtime is radically different from their grandparents, if not their parents.  Whereas the parents of earlier generations watched children at play in the neighborhood yards, parents today are not privy to their children’s pastime pursuits. Many are not even home during the day to observe what is happening. Even if they were, everything is conducted more or less in private on electronic devices, and parents can’t tell when a fight breaks out or when a child is being bullied. Nor can they see what their children are doing that deserves praise or a reprimand.

The changes that technology has introduced into our lives have made us more comfortable and provided many more options for our entertainment and our communication; so much so that it is changing our language and our social values. (An incoming caller, for example, is permitted to interrupt a conversation already in progress.) The relatively recent past, more than an exercise in nostalgia, needs to serve as a point of reference, as a backdrop to what has been taking place in recent decades.  I applaud that organized children’s soccer, football, gymnastics and baseball are as popular as ever. I suspect, however, that parents may not be evaluating the changes in the way children play at home and that degree of vigilance seems in order.

* A series of computer games are now available under this name, so many in fact that I could not find the original anywhere on the Internet.

This is the first in a series of articles that I plan that will review how children’s activities have changed over the past two generations. Thanks for checking in on my web site. I invite you to take a few minutes and page through the test of my site and to comment below if you choose.