I grew up in a neighbourhood of mostly boys, with two brothers. Most of the time, my options were to play by myself, or play with the boys. My brother had a GI Joe, complete with fuzzy beard. He spent a lot of time with Barbie. Because I didn’t have a lot of female playmates, I didn’t really know what Barbie’s life was supposed to be like, so she spent a lot of time on spy missions, sliding down ziplines, and jumping out of airplanes. GI Joe fit quite nicely into her clothes, so when he was undercover, he often wore Barbie’s pink gingham dress. We had the completely unfettered use of our wild kid imaginations, until my Dad stepped in. He asked us why GI Joe was wearing a dress. “Cuz he’s a SPY, Dad. He’s in disguise!” It really didn’t sit very well with Dad, but to his credit, he didn’t forbid us to play anymore, and as a result, we continued our blissful imaginary play without any thought to whether it was right or wrong for Joe to be sporting a bridesmaid’s dress. Sadly, her shoes would not fit him, but the combat boots lent the outfit an edgy, punk feel. Message? Kids should just be kids. It’s all okay.
When my own kids were small, McDonald’s offered a “boy toy” (schnort – I’d like one of those RIGHT NOW) or a “girl toy” with their Happy Meals. Often the “girl toy” was a miniature Barbie doll, and the “boy toy” was a Hot Wheels car. Neither of my boys had much interest in toy cars when they were small, but Thing One ALWAYS wanted the Barbie. I’m not sure why. “Oh, well, he’s gay, that explains it”, you might say, but I don’t think so. My younger, straight son was equally uninterested in cars. I think it was because children can’t project their vision of themselves into a model of a car, but they can do so with a tiny person. I don’t think the issue was whether the doll was male or female, it’s just that it was a tiny person. “Hey – I’M a person. THIS is a little person. I could have adventures!”
You can call them “action figures”, if it makes you feel better about letting your sons play with dolls, but the fact remains – they are tiny representations of humanity. I think by denying boys the right to play with dolls, we may have done them a great disservice. We learn a lot by “playing”. I’m not saying that dolls are the only toys that unleash the imagination. Give any kid a stick and see what happens. But there’s something special about having a tiny being in your hand who can do ANYTHING your imagination can come up with, including stuff you’re not allowed to do because you’re too little.
One of our favourite games as kids was to take two lawn chairs, and set them up facing each other. Rick and I would sit in the chairs, and throw an old wine-coloured bedspread over ourselves. An old push-broom poked through the hole in the bedspread was the propeller, twirled vigorously and voila – our very own helicopter. We landed in a lot of very cool places, and had awesome adventures.
Playdoh was also very, very cool. Our favourite was to make tiny cave villages and cavemen. It was cool being a caveman.
Clubhouses were the best. And forts. Forts were awesome. Having your own place was great. “Yeah, I’m third box to the left. The Frigidaire Building. I’ll buzz you in.”
We had millions of leaves to rakes every fall, and giant piles to jump in, hide in, throw at each other. We’d take the seed pods from the day lilies and whack them against the side of the house with badminton racquets.
We had the usual games as well, games like Freeze Tag, Redlight-Greenlight, Mother May I, Red Rover and What Time Is It Mister Wolf. Do kids play these games anymore? I think kids are more closely monitored now than we were. We never had “playdates”, we just kind of roamed around the neighbourhood, knocking on our friends’ doors to see who could come out to play.
And what about playing house? The biggest, most aggressive kid got to be “Mother”. Mother was the power figure. Boy or girl, in my hood, you wanted to be Mother. As one of the younger kids, I usually wound up either being Baby or the Dog. I’m a good dog.
We might have gotten physically hurt more than kids today. Remember when Ricky P hit the baseball into the brushpile where the wasps’ nest was? Remember when I tobogganed headfirst into a tree? Kevin W putting worms down my back? When Micheal L decided to show me his junk in our makeshift tent? That put me right off my dinner. “But Lynne, you LOVE sausages.” Not anymore, Mum, sorry.
But nobody died. Nobody was even seriously injured. Even though our own Mum might not have known where we were, somebody’s mum did. Somebody was making koolaid and handing out popsicles.