We Made Our Own Fun

Published by Reminisce Magazine

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

One of the greatest problems faced by today's families when their circumstances are suddenly reduced is keeping their children occupied. So many children today are so accustomed to being entertained by television, the Internet, and various mechanical toys that require an endless supply of batteries that taking these things away leaves kids quite at a loss to occupy their time.

Not so our parents and grandparents, who often were expected to entertain themselves with little more than what they could find lying around the house and barn. This book is entirely devoted to the stories of those days as remembered by now grown-up people who were kids in the summertime.

For instance, how did you while away the long summer days after school got out, when there was no television to watch? Kids could make stilts out of 2x4's with blocks nailed on for their feet, or they might pick dandelions and turn the hollow stems into long chains that could be strung between trees or turned into necklaces for kids or pets.

For a special treat, there might even be ice cream, but it took a lot of work. Back then, stores generally didn't sell ice cream. Instead you had to make it yourself, using a hand-cranked ice cream freezer. If times were especially hard, whole neighborhoods might have to pool their contributions just to get all the ingredients together -- cream, sugar, eggs, crushed ice, rock salt, etc. Then everyone with the necessary strength would have to take their turns at the crank until it became so stiff it simply couldn't be moved any more. Only then could everyone enjoy ice cream -- and it had to be split so many ways that each person hardly got more than a mouthful. But after all that anticipation, somehow it managed to taste better than all the store-bought ice cream ever since.

When times were tight, store-bought toys became hard to come by. But that didn't keep the kids of the 30's and early 40's from having plenty to play with. Even if their parents didn't have the time and skills to make toys, most kids could turn various odds and ends into playthings. A shingle could be cut into a serviceable boat, with a rubber band to turn the propellor, and soon they were racing their little craft across a pond or creek. A fallen tree could become a fort or pirate ship, and speaking of trees, there was always the treehouse, cobbled together from used lumber or maybe even built from real new wood if someone had money to spare.

Of course solitary play wasn't the only game in town -- lots of kids spent their spare time playing games with friends and neighbors. Some of these games are barely remembered, particularly the ones that would be regarded as dangerous today, like mumblety-peg, which involved actually tossing a pocket knife and seeing how it landed. Or games like Red Rover, in which the kids ran into a human chain formed by the other side, trying to find the weakest link and break it. But plenty of kids played familiar games such as baseball or football, or board games like checkers and chess. If they couldn't get all the equipment from the store, they'd find a way to improvise, although being able to acquire the real thing was always a big dream.

Even in those times there wasn't a complete absence of passive entertainment to be watched, even before the rise of television. There were the movies, which could be particularly desirable on hot summer days because the movie theater would often have air conditioning. There were theatrical productions, generally done by amateur troupes everywhere except the big cities where there was enough draw to have professional players. And of course there was always the circus. Everybody loved it when the circus came to town and you could see exotic animals, daring acrobats, and of course the freaks in the sideshow.

As I read this book, I think of how much we've lost -- and how much of it has been from fear. Even when I was a kid in the 70's, my mom routinely chased me and my brothers out to the yard with the instructions to get ourselves some fresh air and not come back in until suppertime. We ran all over the lots of our farmstead, sometimes climbing on the various farm implements that were parked in the back waiting for their season to be used. Today, that would be considered gross neglect, and if anything were to happen that resulted in injury, it would be considered just cause for a call to child protective services. Back then, the occasional cut that needed stitches or even a broken bone was considered just part of growing up. Even in town, there wasn't the constant terror of stranger danger keeping kids inside, meeting each other only at school or in carefully arranged play dates. I remember visiting a friend who lived in town and after school spending the entire afternoon over at the nearby elementary school, playing on the playground equipment until it was time for supper.

Maybe it's time we stop fearing every shadow and learn to let kids be kids. They aren't going to learn how to fend for themselves if we insist on keeping them in bubble-wrap until they turn 18.

Review posted June 9, 2011.

Buy 'We Made Our Own Fun!' from Amazon.com