Monday, July 20, 2020

The Summer of the Storm Sewer Trench

One summer, the city dug up the street in front of our house in order to lay down concrete storm sewer pipes. They used a digger to break through the asphalt, digging a trench several feet deeper than we were tall. I don't recall the workers or the work as much as the playground they left behind when they went home at the end of each day. My parents were okay with us playing the trench, but they warned us to stay off of the idle digger, which we did, even as we got as close as we could, studying every detail of the amazing machine that had turned up on our street.

All other games were on hold during the era of the trench. Initially, some of the other kids from Wembley Street were forbidden from clambering around on the broken rocks and clods of red clay soil, but after a few days their parents, for the most part, relented, and we all played in there. What could our parents do? Our street was our play yard. We were out there all day long, every day, out of our mothers' hair. Wembley Street was a spur of road lined with some 20 suburban houses, capped on one end by a cul-de-sac. We only had to dodge traffic in the mornings when our fathers left for work and the early evenings when they came home. The rest of the day it belonged to the kids of Wembley Street.

During the summer of the trench, our usual games of kickball and pinecone fights were set aside in favor of games of adventure and exploration. As they began to lay the segments of huge concrete pipe into the hole, we became spelunkers, daring one another to go deeper and deeper into the dark tunnel. We challenged one another to jump into the hole. We collected rocks from the "center of the earth." We pretended we were astronauts on the surface of the moon. Once, while playing atop the concrete pipe, we made it shift, causing a large seam to open up between two adjoining segments. Panicked, we stuffed it full of rocks and debris in the hopes of hiding the damage we had caused.

The trench was, in every way, a miracle.

Sometimes one of us would scrape a knee or something, which we would wash off with a garden hose, not wanting to alert any of the adults lest they decide it was too dangerous for us. Several of us began to pack adhesive bandages in our pockets just in case. By taking these precautions we kept our own parents at bay, but one adult, the father of the only three children who were not allowed to play in the trench, took it upon himself to scold us whenever he spotted us playing there. Like most of the fathers, he was gone during the day, but when we spied his car turn the corner we would scatter, hiding behind shrubbery in the ridiculous hope that he hadn't seen us. In hindsight, I'm sure he was simply a kindhearted man, trying to keep us safe, but in our minds he was the villain, a character that added savor to our play. Adults, even our own mothers and fathers, were often cast in that role.

You see, adults were fun stealers. We loved them, of course, but whenever they were around, arbitrary limits were imposed. We had to watch what we said, "settle down," and "be careful." There were so many things we couldn't do with adult eyes on us. It was Mr. Sain who banned tackle football when he saw his older, larger son barreling over us little kids. It was Mrs. Hodges who complained about the path we'd worn in her lawn by using it as a short cut to play with kids on Christopher Street. It was Mrs. Broom who shouted out her window at us when we tried watering her roses by putting water in the blossoms instead of around the roots. Killjoys all.

Today, I imagine we might be considered "wild" or "feral," bad influences, or rotten kids. Some would have likely blamed our parents, sternly insisting that we needed more "tough love," that we were out of control and destructive. Indeed, the authorities would probably be called on us for our petty acts of accidental vandalism, trespassing, or called on our parents for allowing us to be outdoors unsupervised. But then, in 1970, we were just considered regular kids, doing what kids do, growing up, playing together, and having good clean fun. 

I suppose I should now make a list of all the ways in which we were educating ourselves through this unsupervised play, but that's so beside the point that it's meaningless. 


Today's the day! The first day of The Play First Summit is upon us. Please join us for this free event featuring twenty of the world's top early childhood and parenting thought leaders, including Janet Lansbury, Peter Gray, Lisa Murphy, Ijumaa Jordan, Maggie Dent, and Cheng Xuequin (Anji Play). This is not just another series of lectures, but rather a collection of conversations about our challenging times, how they are impacting young children and families, what we can do about it, and how we might seize this moment to transform the early years into what they ought to be for children everywhere. To see the full list of speakers and to register, click here.

Also, Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in the UK, Iceland, and Europe thanks to my friends at Fafunia! It's also available in the US and Canada. If you want to go directly to the Fafunia page click here.  And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well.

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