Library of Congress

Traditional street play is good for kids precisely because it allows them to figure out how to use their environment in creative ways on their own.

My son just turned 10, and this is the first year since he was four that I haven’t been a soccer mom.

Let me put that another way: I am still a soccer mom, in that he still loves to play soccer. And baseball. And football. And just about anything else that involves a ball.

What he hasn’t always loved is organized league ball – the early morning games, the shlepping, the lack of spontaneity.

What my kid really gets a kick out of, we’ve learned, is taking the ball into the street or the nearby park and organizing his own games – with the other children on the block, with his friends from school, with random kids he runs into at the park or the schoolyard. Heck, even with me.

Of course, that’s the way it used to be all over New York and every city in the country. Kids playing stickball and hockey and skelly in the street, jumping rope, making up their own arcane rules and forming their own shifting alliances.

It’s a type of game-playing that has been gradually eroding over the years. You can find lots of things to blame for that. There’s television, of course, and the overblown fear of child abduction. Video games. Street violence that makes parents want to keep their kids safely behind doors. And then of course there’s the danger posed by the drivers of passing cars.

I wrote last week about “the invention of jaywalking” – the history of how America was gradually sold on the idea that urban streets were meant for cars and not for people. Research has shown how the social lives of city dwellers have suffered as a result, as the sidewalks and stoops of our cities have become less pleasant places to linger, dominated by the noise and stink and danger of heavy traffic. I’m worried about letting my kid walk to the nearby park or schoolyard by himself, not because I think he’s going to get kidnapped or mugged, but because I think there’s a very real chance he could be hit by a driver who is going too fast, running a red light, or blowing a stop sign.

In recent years, New York has allowed some neighborhoods to reclaim streets during daytime summer hours through the city’s “Playstreets” program. Lyman Place in the Bronx is a wonderful example that was written up in the The New York Times a couple of years back. On that block in the heart of a tough neighborhood, a woman named Hetty Fox has created a place where kids can play the old-fashioned way, because she can see the value to the whole community:

Miss Fox insists that while housing can be built — and indeed, Lyman Place has been remade with new town houses and renovated apartments — nurturing a community is harder. That’s what she says happens on the play street, where parents lounge on folding chairs in the shade while their children — little geniuses, she calls them — zigzag from curb to curb.

“I sometimes wonder if this city is squandering its young people by not fighting to keep neighborhood life intact,” she said. “Every species creates an environment where it protects and nurtures its offspring. If you don’t, then you’re saying we’re not really a city.”

The city’s parks department also has “mobile recreation vans” that travel to designated spots to conduct supervised activities. And the Police Athletic League has a play street program that is nearly 100 years old – which has recently been redesigned as “a measurable, goal-oriented program with set objectives and performance targets.”

I love these programs. I’m only kind of sad there needs to be an agenda. The creation of a rigid structure – hours that the streets are off-limits to play, adults in charge of structuring the games – has its drawbacks, not just for kids, but for neighborhoods.

Here’s one effect they talk about on Lyman Place:

About 10 years ago, the police told [Miss Fox] that play street hours had to stop at 5.

“Those hours after 5 are special,” she lamented. “That’s when parents come home from work and can play outside with their children.”

Another change on the street this year looms large — literally. A police observation tower rises over Lyman Place, a testament to growing concerns about drugs and violence. Miss Fox thinks safety would be better ensured if families could stay outside longer.

“The police say we’re loitering if we sit outside after the play street ends,” said Chavah Wanzer, 55, who often comes out to read and draw in the shadow of her building. “You can’t sit in front of your own building! And if you don’t go in, they get rowdy with you.”

Traditional street play is good for kids, and fun for kids, precisely because it allows them to figure out how to use their environment in creative ways on their own, or maybe with the help of adults who are doing their own socializing on the street. Kids call the shots themselves, making a tree first base and a manhole cover second and the streetlamp third. They figure out how to make fair teams, learn which scoring systems work and which don’t. They learn which grown-ups they can count on to retrieve a lost ball, and how to knock an errant football down from the branches of a tree. They get to know each other by creating something together.

For urban kids, this kind of self-structuring play is vital. They can’t run around in the woods, the way that kids in rural areas can. But they can learn to navigate the environment that they live in, thereby gaining mastery over it and themselves. It’s very different from the league play that has taken over the lives of many urban families in the last 20 years.

In my part of the world, parents spend a good chunk of fall and spring weekends ferrying their kids to and from these organized games, which are divided into rigid time slots. Most people travel far from their neighborhoods to the playing fields. It’s exhausting and inconvenient, not integrated into people’s lives the way that play used to be. It’s a lot better than nothing – don’t get me wrong – but I hear a lot of complaints from parents and children both about the tiresome mechanics of making it all happen.

For now, our family has decided to take a break from the uniforms and the schedules. I’m lucky to have a work setup that allows me to be the person who sits on the stoop and watches to make sure the kids on the block don’t run out after a ball and get killed, and so I do that, in between household chores and cooking dinner. It’s a good chance to catch up with my neighbors as they pass by.

And now that the weather is getting warmer, the kid and I take our bat and mitts and ball to the park, hoping that someone else will be there, ready to play with us.

Top image: Children with tricycles, playing in the street in New York (George Grantham Bain Collection via Library of Congress).

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