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Where Have All The Children Gone?

July 17, 2011

The temperature today (July 17) in southern Ontario is expected to reach 32 degrees Celsius (90 Fahrenheit) with a humidex (‘feels like’) value of 41 (105 F).  These temperatures are expected to last at least a week, which means we are officially into the ‘dog days of summer’. 

SiriusIn ancient Rome the ‘dog days’ (diēs caniculārēs) were July 23 to August 23 – when the ‘Dog Star’ Sirius rose with the sun and was the brightest star in the night sky.  Believing that Sirius was the cause of the hot, humid weather that appeared at the same time, the Romans actually sacrificed a brown dog each year in an attempt to appease him (why they kept doing it when it clearly made no difference is a mystery).  Today, the term ‘dog days’ is used to describe summer days (between early July and September in the northern hemisphere; January and early March in the southern hemisphere) when the ‘three Hs’ (hazy, hot, humid) are all present.

I don’t recall humidity levels in the fifties and sixties (when I was growing up) being as high as they are now – or maybe it was just that we didn’t think about it as much back then.  Air conditioning was rare – homes were surrounded by trees that shaded them (massive subdivisions weren’t built in farm fields, and no one was stupid enough to cut down trees to build a house – instead it was built to ‘fit’ into the surrounding landscape); windows in houses, office buildings, and stores actually opened (to let in fresh air and the occasional breeze); and fans (sometimes placed near a block of ice) were the most common method of ‘cooling off’ indoors. 

50s Paddling PoolDuring the hottest days of the summer, people sat outside in  the shade, sipped lemonade and iced tea, turned on sprinklers and/or bought ‘paddling pools’ (filled with cold water from the  hose) for children to play in.  Very few people had swimming pools in their backyards, and even fewer had the luxury of a summer cottage to retreat to. I’m sure there was a lot of talk – and the occasional ‘complaint’ – about the heat, but we all managed – and survived.

Empty PlaygroundThe other day when I stopped at the Library (mid morning), I was shocked to see that the huge park adjacent to the parking lot was empty.  Despite the perfect weather (temp in mid 20s [C; high 70s F] with no measurable humidity), the play structure was empty, the playing field quiet.  I couldn’t help but wonder, “Where are all the children?” 

On summer days when I was young (i.e., a pre-teen) my friends and I would congregate at the local park, or the school grounds, to enjoy the freedom of summer vacation.  We spent hours on the swings, the teeter-totters (see-saws), and the monkey bars.  We played hopscotch or jacks, jumped rope, tried to outdo one another with our hula-hoops.  We bounced rubber balls against the wall of the school, and played tennis at Wallace Park (most of the tennis courts in town were ‘public’ and there always seemed to be courts free).  We stayed out from just after breakfast until our mothers called us home for lunch, then escaped again until dinnertime.

Me Up a Tree (1959)When we stayed home, my sister and I took our dolls outside and played under a tree while my brother built roads in the sandbox with his Tonka trucks and drove his die-cast cars along them. We climbed trees, blew bubbles, decorated the patio with chalk.  We curled up in the hammock with Nancy Drew Mysteries, or read Archie comics in a makeshift tent (a sheet draped over the clothesline).  We walked to the store for popsicles (the white ones were my favourite; my sister liked the banana flavoured ones) or foot-long Mr. Freeze pops (grape or cherry).  We made peanut butter sandwiches to take to the lakeside park for a picnic, where we fed the crusts to the ducks and skipped rocks in the water.  We scrambled through the woods, explored fields and streams, and ate wild blackberries warm from the vine.  We caught pollywogs and grasshoppers during the day, and fireflies at night (and let them go the next day).  We studied bugs, and birds, and butterflies.  We skinned our knees, got sunburned, and had our share of mosquito bites and bee stings.  The world was our playground.  And it was almost always outside.

There are families in my neighbourhood with children – I never see them.  They have big yards but no one plays in them.  Almost every ‘neighbourhood’ playground I pass in town is empty (there was a small park with playground equipment on the street where we lived when my boys were growing up – we were down there several times a day).  Nowadays kids spend all their time indoors (presumably in air conditioned comfort) in front of the TV or the computer or the video game console.  They’ve abandoned the world of unstructured play for the world of structured choices (there are only so many possibilities that can be programmed into a computer game) and mindless ‘entertainment’ (honestly, how thought-provoking are most of the TV shows aimed at the 5 – 12 year old demographic?!?!?)  Parents have become consumed with the fear that their children aren’t safe out in the ‘big, bad world’ (even though the percentage of children abducted or killed is lower than it was fifty years ago – we just hear more about it now that we have access to 24 hour news and the kind of reporting that’s designed to scare us half to death), so they keep them indoors, where they’re ‘safe’.

Screen TimeA recent study revealed that the average child spends an average of six hours a day in front of a screen (TV, computer) and that almost half of all pre-teens are overweight or obese.  ‘Kids’ don’t go outdoors, don’t exercise (few ride their bikes anymore, preferring instead to whine until Mom or Dad drives them to the mall, or wherever they might want to go – even if its only a few blocks away), and they don’t engage their minds in the kind of imaginative play that we did.  Personally, I think this is causing them to stagnate (creatively and emotionally).

EdutainmentWe have a generation right now in high school and college who (for the most part) can’t reason or think for themselves.  They want answers – but they won’t ask questions or figure things out for themselves.  They want ‘to be taught’, not to learn (for themselves).  When presented with a problem, they stare into space waiting for the teacher to show them how to solve it.  They refuse to read assigned materials, complete homework, or answer questions in class. They demand PowerPoint presentations, YouTube videos, and social networking-type communication; they want to be ‘edu-tained’, not educated.  (Interestingly enough, community colleges in Ontario are giving in to these demands by forcing faculty to develop ‘active learning materials’ to post online – which most students refuse to even look at, never mind interact with; its a no-win situation). 

Certainly there are some valuable educational TV shows, and some interesting computer applications that challenge kids to think and problem-solve; there are even a number of ‘video games’ disguised as exercise programs that are aimed at getting both kids and adults up off  the couch (although they’re still indoors and simply doing what they’re told, not using their own imaginations) – but surely we’d be a smarter, more engaged, and happier society if we got ourselves outside in the fresh air for a little ‘fun and games’ this summer.  The fifties and sixties might not have been ‘better times’ (as many of us like to think), but they were certainly easier, less frenetic, and a heck of a lot more fun. 

Summers are short, brief, fleeting.  Don’t waste them indoors – and don’t let your kids, either.  Before you know it, there will be fewer summers ahead of you than behind – and you’ll find yourself like me, on … the other side of 55.

Hot Time Summer In The Fifties

  1. Colleen permalink
    July 18, 2011 8:38 am

    Ahhh…foot-long Mr. Freeze pops…for me it was either grape or white (I guess that would be cream soda?)…and if this heat keeps up much longer, I’m thinking of investing in a kiddie pool for me and the puppies!

    • July 18, 2011 9:38 am

      I never knew what flavour the white ones were but I loved them (in popsicles, too). They had sort of a minty flavour, if I recall – but I don’t think you can get them anymore (all the good things are gone!)


  2. July 18, 2011 8:20 am

    I’m amazed at the 6 figure homes built in neighborhoods without trees. I think the reason is builders can’t be bothered with carefully building on a setting of trees…it’s much easier to mow them down and yank them out. Another reason young people give me…what if it falls on the house during a storm? Now that thought never occurred to me when I was younger nor do I subscribe to it now. Really now…can we be so in control as to plan for every “what if”?

    • July 18, 2011 9:41 am

      I live in a neighbourhood where they actually didn’t cut down the trees to build the homes (I have dozens of trees – all sizes – on my lot). We’ve had new neighbours move in over the past few years and several have had trees removed so they can get sun in their yards! I almost cried. And then – guess what? They don’t use the yards because its too hot! It’s shameful (and honestly – it serves them right!)


  3. July 17, 2011 10:39 pm

    I agree with you. Children nowadays don’t know what fun they’re missing by not playing outside. I have young kids and fortunately, they love playing outside (since they have limited TV and computer time, hehehe). We don’t have a yard so the kids play on the street with the neighbors.

    • July 18, 2011 10:35 am

      I remember when EVERYONE played out on the street and you knew all your neighbours (and they knew you). Things sure have changed (and not for the better!)


  4. July 17, 2011 5:27 pm

    In the mall! The children, I mean 🙂

    You are so right about everything! We try to use AC only in the hottest days, we love our trees and keep planting – so far 7 fruit trees with more coming! Our kid is regularly “kicked” outside and we happily join him there. I am sorry if it sounds like bragging, it is just that what you said is exactly the way I think about this 🙂

    • July 17, 2011 6:40 pm

      I used to unplug the TV (and, later, the computer) during the day when my kids were young. They were ‘spoiled’ by having a pool in the backyard – and a yard big enough for a playhouse, sandbox, and climbing apparatus – but even on non-swimming days, I made them go outside. Now, you rarely see any child in the park, riding their bike (or on roller skates), or playing on the swings. Such a shame – they are missing so much.


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