As a kid growing up in 1960s suburban America, I played “stadium” baseball, rode intricate routes on my bike, trampolined, played tackle football, engaged in hours-long games of hide-’n’-seek, went sledding played indoor basketball and tightroped. And I did it all without leaving our block.
I was reminded of my cul-de-sac-as-adventure-park youth Sunday by a New York Times story on UCLA’s CLEF project. The Center on Everyday Lives of Families was created in the wake of September 11 to take an in-depth look at the lives of middle class Americans. Researchers, in the form of graduate students in the school’s Department of Anthropology, spent nine years following 32 dual wage-earner families in the Los Angeles area to document and analyze a dizzying array of family life, from how chores are divvied up to how our rampant consumerism has created a critical storage crisis for most families. (American families, with 3 percent of the world’s children, own 40 percent of the world’s toys; Among other things, that means the family car(s) has been kicked out of the garage to make way for a plethora of playthings.)
The study finding that caught my eye — and prompted my frolic down memory lane — was this: Despite the fact our houses are crammed with stuff, we spend virtually no time in the least cluttered are of our domicile: The yard.
This doesn’t come as a complete shock. Previous studies have documented our growing reluctance to go outdoors, especially to let our kids go out unchaperoned.
What’s curious is that we have the antidote to our ailment literally in our own backyards.
Parents are reluctant to let their kids venture from the neighborhood for reasons real (inattentive drivers who make base jumping seem safe compared to crossing the street) and perceived (an increase in crimes against children, dubbed by Louv as the “Bogeyman syndrome” and debunked in the book “Damned Lies and Statistics“). And yet we have these backyard playgrounds that we rarely set foot in. Concludes the study: “Very few families put these spaces to much use … other than for viewing pleasure.”
Indulge me and go back 45 years to South Boston Court, in what was then an emerging suburb of southeast Denver. Here’s why we never needed to leave the block (although we frequently did):
- The Stoffels two-car garage. One late fall day in 1963 I heard a rhythmic thumping coming from a house up the street that had just sold. I walked up the street to discover Mike, Steve and Dave in the garage, playing basketball. Granted, the indoor hoop was only six feet off the ground, but we were barely four. For a couple years, at least, it was our sports sanctuary when the weather was bad.
- Cul-de-sac Athletic Park. Our 10-house block culminated in a cul-de-sac, a dead-end for cars, a perfect arena for baseball and kickball contests. With a streetlight at the end, night games were as common as day.
- Tightrope walking. Most of the fences in our neighborhood were a little over three feet high, made of wood and were topped by a tempting two-by-four. Instant tightrope.
- Hide-’n’-seek. In a paper addressing “Changing American home life: trends in domestic leisure and storage among middle-class families,” CLEF reports that, “During the early 1900s, new fence laws had the dramatic effect of making front yards for the first time into open, parklike spaces; in essence, a street became bordered by a long and uninterrupted expanse of yard.” Homeowners suddenly felt that their portion of this “uninterrupted expanse” had to be picture perfect: “Lawns are evaluated by passersby from the sidewalk or street, translating into an unending series of judgments about each household’s standing.” But to the neighborhood kids, these “parklike spaces” were just that, parks to be played in. We often extended that interpretation to the neighbors’ backyards as well, making for intriguing games of hide-’n’-seek.
- Sledding (a couple houses had sloping front yards), trampoline (the Stoffels again — what great friends they were), tackle football (what else to do on a level street with curbs for sidelines and driveways for end zones?) intricate bike routes (sidewalks, driveways, front porches to bunnyhop on my Stingray — our block had it all.
And, in all likelihood, so does yours. Just your backyard, that vastly underutilized space that we only view from our cramped and cluttered indoors, holds untold recreational opportunities. All you have to do is take a minute to seek them out — which is your homework for next week.
Go out, explore your grounds. Keep an open mind, think about what you like to do, think about how you might be able to make that happen in your yard. We here at GetGoingNC will do the same. Let’s reconvene next week in this space and share what we came up with.
I wonder if the neighborhood covenants say anything about zip lines …