The end of the street I lived on as a kid was the beginning of a forest. At least that’s how I remember it. It’s gone now, the street’s been continued into more suburban sprawl that makes up the west end of Dollard-des-Ormeaux, now it’s own city. When I lived there it was a borough of Montreal.
Another street a block over dead-ended into the same undeveloped wonderland. It was called Butternut. The street I lived on was Braeside and it was that nomenclature that divided the kids that lived there, territorially. The kids on Butternut had their part of the forest and we on Braeside had ours.
Each was fortified with dugouts large enough to seat a hockey team, camouflaged and insulated with the mulch from the forest floor. And in the trees were one-man lookouts and forts big enough to hold the same hockey team. Suburban development kept us all in materials and our forts withstood the harshest winters Quebec ever saw.
We played there. If we weren’t asleep, doing chores, playing hockey, attending school, or eating, we played there and in the field behind my house that we mowed into a baseball diamond in the summer and played hockey on the ice that formed on the pond there in the winter.
It was our space and we interpreted it to fit whatever whim we may be imagining at the time, from fighting Nazis to winning the Stanley Cup. We created stories there, developed vocabulary, created arcs and apexes, calculated angles and trajectories. We made our own luge course, picked wild raspberries, dragged slick-shod three-speed CCM bicycles and beat the Bruins, Blackhawks, Rangers and the Maple Leafs. In that order.
We played. Like crazy. I don’t ever remember not being able to sleep unless the lightning was bouncing off our house in wet sticky nights. We played.
And such was my first thought when I was struck the other day by a statistic broadcast on NPR. Ira Flatow, host of NPR’s Science Friday indicates that today one in about every 110 kids in the US has some sort of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). All kinds of causes have been postulated from vaccinations to twinkies, but one hypothesis caught my attention in my subsequent research; clusters of children diagnosed with autism occur in contexts where parents are older, more educated, and white.
More shocking is that one in seven kids in the States has a developmental disability according to the Nation Health Interview Surveys.
Now all these numbers are skiwampish at best (a term, I believe originated in Emery County, Utah), but the trends are worrying. These numbers didn’t start to escalate until the 70’s. ASD rates escalated in the late 80’s and early 90’s and many are quick to blame that electrically lactating box from which kids watched stupefying content from Gilligan’s Island to Sponge Bob Squarepants, broadcast now 24/7/365 and transported now anywhere one can find at least a couple of bars-worth of signal.
Older, educated whites may have found more convenience in television. They had the means and Sesame Street certainly had the appeal. And that makes me wonder if kid by kid the dugouts and tree houses of my youth were abandoned for a more pragmatic approach in raising kids. Consider the decrease in liabilities alone. Less scraped knees and elbows. Playground equipment would be and has become the next diminishing icons of youth, of play.
It woud be cruel of me to point a finger at parents of children who experience some level of ASD and implicate that too much TV was allowed, or too much complacency tolerated. I’d be angry with anyone who pointed a finger at me and blamed me for the demise of my special needs son. What I am trying to do here is wonder, at the very least, about the connection between play and development.
Dr. Carol Westby in her article Assessment of Cognitive and Language Abilities Through Play, indicates, “In no evaluation has a child’s meaningful use of language been above his/her cognitive play level…Unless the child possesses the cognitive prerequisites for the linguistic structures she/he is learning, she/he will not use them in actual interpersonal situations (1980).”
And so I wonder, if we up the ante on play, develop play concepts that challenge cognitive acquisition of language and culture, even relationships and analysis, would this trend abate? If kids played again in context that reinforced the development of meaningful language would their minds rise to the cognitive occasion?
And if we had a litigious intervention, and turned children loose on frozen ponds and quaking aspens, showed them where we kept our hammers and nails, random wheels and axels, used bicycle inner tubes and scraps of yardage, and read them stories exercising the theaters of their brains, would we go back or forward?
Would we, instead, be getting better?