As a teacher, I supervised playgrounds teeming with children in need of a break who preferred throwing snowballs to building snowmen, chased one another for no discernible reason, and tattled. I applauded antics on the jungle gym, refereed battles caused by too many swingers with too few swings and thoughtfully examined scratches, scrapes and new shoes. Also, in quiet moments, I thought about the games of my childhood.
I remember grabbing a side bar on a merry-go-round, then running and running and running before jumping aboard for a ride as the other passengers cheered the outstanding spin I’d provided. My friends and I took turns pushing, riding on and falling off the merry-go-round, never questioning the sanity of losing our grip, flying off the whirling platform — our bodies hop-scotching across the gravelled yard —and climbing back on for another ride.
We also survived teeter-totters. When older folks suddenly look terrified, they are reliving the moment when their classmate jumped off the low end of a teeter-totter while they soared on high, causing them to plummet to a bone-jarring, spine-collapsing, teeth-crunching stop.
Sometimes the metal slide claimed us. Twelve-feet high with skimpy three-inch sides, it dropped straight to the depression our skidding feet dug out of the gravel. We fought for position on its stairs then descended head first, sideways, on our bellies, or flat on our backs with our legs and arms held aloft like dead bugs. Sometimes, we propelled our bodies as fast as possible without braking or lowering our feet to land, so we could fly through the air in an effort to capture the flight record before we thudded down. And sometimes, after a particularly bloody landing, we descended properly.
We played unsupervised games of dodge ball in a circle scuffed in the dirt with the heels of our shoes. Having lived with easily irritated siblings, I knew how to dodge to avoid being hit, so I liked ducking, leaping and dashing about. On occasion, a hard-thrown ball broke a classmate’s glasses or knocked the breath out of someone, and our teachers would forbid dodge ball at recess. But they usually forgot.
To play red rover, we stood in a horizontal line facing another team, our arms linked tightly, and chanted, “Red Rover, Red Rover, send Bruce right over,” which sent the classmate we called for running as hard and fast as he could to break through our line. Mayhem sometimes resulted: bruises, claims of broken limbs and heaped bodies pummeling one another.
I didn’t realize the Lake Shore version of mother-may-I differed from that played elsewhere until I participated in a game at my cousin’s birthday party in Provo. During play, I saw an opportunity and charged the girl who played mother without her permission, knocked her to the ground and leaped up to shocked silence and horrified faces rather than the cheers I would have heard at home.
Aunt Mary listened to my tearful explanation then told me sneaking up on a defenseless mother standing with her back to you and decking her was a Lake Shore adaptation. In the civilized world, a tap on the shoulder sufficed.
Though my friends and I survived the havoc of our play, when I remember the chipped teeth, embedded gravel, scraped knees and bloody noses that littered our lives, I understand why soft chips are now spread below equipment designed for safety.
But as I walk by Sunset Elementary, I also notice that children still run, scream, argue and find creative ways to get hurt at recess.