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Are electronic devices robbing our kids of valuable outside playtime?

Jeff Bobo • Jul 3, 2017 at 2:12 PM

At the risk of sounding like a crotchety old man, “In my day...” you practically had to drag a child by his or her hair to get them to come inside on a pretty summer day.”

My parents turned me loose in the morning just about the time the sugar in my Captain Crunch was kicking in, and they didn’t see me again until about two seconds before the sun set.

Most summer mornings during my “tween” to early teen years, at around 10 a.m. a small group of us would convene on the Little League baseball diamond beside city hall in my hometown.

In addition to me, there were the twins, Bill and Mike; and our other friend Mark, and we were all obsessed with baseball. We invented a baseball game we could play with only three or four people that we named, for reasons long forgotten, the racially insensitive “Indian Ball.”

I won’t go into the rules because I doubt if anybody reading this plans on taking up Indian Ball.

But I will say this. We usually didn’t have to play Indian Ball for long.

As the morning progressed, more and more kids would show up and ask to join our game. Before long we had a real game going with nine or more players on each side — and usually only nine gloves between us with half the players using a loaner.

We would play this same game of baseball all day, and into the evening, with 30 or 40 kids congregated either playing or watching. Occasionally the lefties, like myself, would hit a homer over the right field fence, into the main four-lane highway, and either hit a car or a plate glass window at the business across the street.

You’d hear the sound of breaking glass, and there would be a mass exodus of scattering youths until we figured out whether the police were coming. If the coast was clear, the players would slowly reconvene and resume the game, assuming we could find another ball.

Generally the game didn’t end until it was too dark to see.

Then it would be a half-mile sprint home because my parents had only two rules for me on a summer day. Don’t get arrested, and be home before dark. As long as there was a sliver of sunlight visible on the western horizon, I had fulfilled that second obligation.

This huge massing of children wasn’t scheduled, planned or promoted. It just happened.

This game was a magnet that drew out everyone, and we played it every day all summer long unless it rained. Eventually our field was closed due to too many lefties busting out plate glass windows. We moved the game to another park, and the crowd followed us.

I was home the week of Memorial Day to visit my parents, and as I toured around looking over the old stomping grounds, something occurred to me.

You don’t really see kids outside playing very much these days.

At least not as much as they did when I was a kid in the late 1970s and early to mid-1980s. After baseball season, the boys always had a pickup football game going in a vacant lot or on the street. And if it wasn’t sports, we were playing war in the woods or riding our bicycles.

Thanks to my bicycle, I was familiar with every square inch of ground in my hometown, as well as most of the territory in the adjacent towns.

The main public park in the next town over had one of those fancy jungle gym, climbing, sliding, swinging rocket ship, elaborate playground apparatuses which to a kid in 1979 was the next best thing to Dollywood. And the line to get on the old “Rocket Slide” was just as long as a Dollywood ride — or at least it seemed that way when you’re 10 years old.

I drove past that park on Memorial Day and it was like a ghost town. Not a child in sight. All that beautiful playground equipment going to waste.

It’s rare to see kids playing outside during the summer days anymore. And if they are outside, it’s for structured league sports such as soccer, baseball, softball and football; or maybe outside Bible Camp activities.

Driving up and down the streets of my old town that week, I was reminded of the 1968 movie “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” starring Dick Van Dyke when they arrive in Vulgaria and find a land without children.

But, instead of being imprisoned by the evil Baroness Bomburst who hates children, I fear our kids have been imprisoned in their own homes by an even worse menace. The Internet, video games and cell phones.

I see this trend happening to the children in my life, both here in Kingsport and in my little hometown.

On Wednesday afternoon, I drove around Kingsport, Mount Carmel and Church Hill just to see if any children were playing outside.

In Kingsport, I went by Hammond Park, which has a nice playground and was empty, and then Jackson Elementary School, which has one of the most amazing playground complexes anywhere, and was completely empty.

I stopped by Cloud Park, which was empty except for one gray-bearded gentleman shooting hoops.

I’ll tell you one thing. If we had a skateboard park in my hometown in 1982 like the one you have today at Cloud Park, every boy in town would have been out there Wednesday afternoon. Half of them might be standing on the sidelines on crutches due to failed “slides and grinds,” but they’d be there watching their able-bodied friends.

Then I drove to Mount Carmel City Park, which also has a very nice complex of playground equipment and baseball fields, and it was completely empty.

I stopped by Church Hill’s Jaycees Park, which had two adults on the walking trails, but no children in the playground.

Alas, at J.W. Salley Park in Church Hill, I finally found some children playing outside, albeit not on the ball diamond or playground. They were swimming in the municipal pool.

It looked like a lot of fun, and I envied them. But I’m not sure if I’m going to count that as the traditional kid-playing-outside situation that I was looking for. That’s more of a pay-to-play situation, although if I was a boy their age I would have been right there beside them doing flips off the diving board.

I fear that children today are missing out on an important part of childhood, which is unstructured playtime with their peers. Basically kids being kids. At least the way kids were kids when I was a kid.

The days I spent playing outside with my childhood friends, neighbors, adversaries and outright enemies was probably the most important time of my life, developmentally speaking. It provided an education as valuable, if not more valuable, than can be taught in a classroom.

We learned diplomacy, how to govern ourselves and how to resolve disputes — occasionally, but not always, with knuckles. We also learned to forgive and forget.

Aside from exercising our bodies, we exercised our creativity and imaginations. We made up our own games and our own rules, and we didn’t need adults or outside influences to help us have a good time.

Give me a stick, a pile of dirt, a couple of buddies and our imaginations, and we were set for the day.

I would encourage parents of children 15 and under to try weening your kids off their electronic devices, at least during the daytime summer hours. Throw them out of the house, lock the door, and tell them, “Go out and have some fun.”

If they’ve got any imagination at all, they’ll figure the rest out for themselves.

Just remind them to be home before dark.

And don’t get arrested.

Jeff Bobo covers Hawkins County for the Times-News. Email him at jbobo@timesnews.net.                                                                                        

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