“Put your potatoes in,” 8 year old Susie yelled enthusiastically, and held out a single fist, knuckles to the side. We formed a quick circle around her, in just a few seconds, and each of us pushed two balled up, and dirty fists into the center.
“One potato, two potato, three potato, four, five potato, six potato, seven potato, or……”
It was 1975 in New Jersey. The kids from Muhlenberg Avenue were doing what they did most evenings, at least until the street lights went on……they were playing.
Peggy’s “potato” was gently pounded with that “or” and she sighed, folding that arm behind her back. She kept her other fist in the circle, but looked worried. The rest of us stood a little taller and held our own potatoes out with a bit more confidence as the elimination continued.
Back in the 70s, young folk knew how to get things done. A large group of kids was able to organize very quickly and could settle on which game to play by simply calling out their preferences. If a consensus couldn’t be reached in a minute or so by yelling, then flipping a coin would almost always work.
When deciding which kickball or stickball team got to head up to bat first, we would have our captains shoot for odds or evens. On a count of “one, two, three, shoot,” each team’s captain showed one to four fingers and just like that, a decision was made. Kinder versions involved a best of five or seven, but when twilight was looming and daylight was short, things were finalized on one shoot only.
And when we needed to select a kid to be “It” for Kick the Can, or Hide and Seek, or Tag, we might rely on Eenie Meenie Miney Moe, but more often than not, we would just put our potatoes in.
Times are different now and it seems that parents prefer their children stick to structured, and well supervised, activities, rather than the child-run playtime of my youth. These days, you rarely see groups of kids playing together outside, at least in my neighborhood, and I actually know an elderly fellow who was so surprised by the sight of a group of kids gathering on his corner, that he panicked and called the police. But thankfully, it was just a group of middle schoolers trying to organize a game of wiffle ball, and not the beginning of The Purge.
Whether the decline in outdoor and free play was caused by our electronic pastimes, like video games and the internet, or by modern parents’ real and rational concerns over safety, abduction, and bullying, something has been lost. And while I am in no way advocating for free range parenting, I still need to acknowledge that today’s kids are missing out on the benefits of kid-run playtime.
Michelle Obama has made it clear that outside playtime equals health and fitness, and it is true that there were many fewer overweight kids back in those days. But aside from health benefits, free play also taught us life skills, skills that I continue to use, both in my personal and my professional adult life.
Because we wanted to spend our precious time playing, we learned to organize ourselves and to agree upon rules for our games, both quickly. We learned to collaborate and negotiate, and to compromise, since each of us did not always get what we wanted. If we wanted a voice at the table, though, we learned to make our individual voices heard in a crowd. We also learned flexibility and could change the rules on the fly when needed, like when an extra kid joined in after the game was in progress, and we learned to regroup and reorganize when needed, like when we had to change locations suddenly when the dad of the house, in whose yard we were playing, got home from work and asked for “peace and quiet.”
It was down to only two kids now. “My mother and your mother were hanging out the clothes,” Susie continued. “My mother punched your mother right in the nose. What color blood came out?” The word “out” landed on Chrissy’s outstretched fist and we all waited, with expectation, for her answer.
Boy oh boy, those were different times. But there we all were, not just having unsupervised play time and planning a game that would be played partly in the street, but we were also imagining a clothesline brawl between out mothers! Those of us who were crafty, though, were also counting the letters in various colors and calculating where Susie’s potato would land.
“Yellow,” Chrissy responded and we all waited. This time, the pounding fist came down on me, and I reluctantly tucked my second potato fist behind my back and was out. I had really wanted to be “It” for this game of Kick the Can, and I know my face showed my disappointment. I didn’t cry or throw a fit, though, because, after all, I wanted to stay in the game. Free play with the neighborhood kids had taught me to show some grit and to bounce back when things didn’t go my way.
Kid-organized play time taught us teamwork, communication, leadership, and resiliency. Looking back, I am amazed at what a group of scrappy kids could accomplish.
If only all of my adult work groups could get things done as efficiently and effectively as my childhood neighbors! At the next work meeting when the group is struggling to reach a consensus, I may just yell out, “Everybody, put your potatoes in!”
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