Where did summer's serendipity go?

Whatever happened to those long, hot, aimless days of summer, when playmates were always an arm's length away, and there were no adults directing our activities?

When we poured into the streets early in the morning and romped until well past sundown, returning home only to stoke our little furnaces with bologna sandwiches and Kool-Aid?

I still recall the end of each of my grammar-school years, those dog days leading up to the great catharsis. Pupils long confined in staid desk rows suddenly became giddy, all too aware that soon the doors of the school would flare open with something resembling finality, and we would spill out into a world fresh and green and free. Each of us harbored the illusion that school was not only over, but over forever.

These days, I often think of these things as my mailbox fills with offers of structured, costly summer activities for children. Sports camps, science camps, music camps, math camps – all of these have served to turn summer into a commodity.

Beyond this, I fret about the toll such organizational élan takes on a child's creativity. Before well-intentioned adults got involved, kids were capable of making some wonderful hay with their summers, as long as they were given free rein.

I grew up in urban New Jersey during the 1960s and was never bored. The euphoria at the end of the school year was a mere preamble to the ambrosia of the summer to follow. It was the very peak of the baby boom, and the streets were flooded with children. The genius of our lower-middle-class parents lay in their willingness to set us free and accept what came of it.

The beauty of an unstructured summer is that anything can happen, and we as kids rejoiced in this element of surprise. Like the time a watermelon truck hit a bump on our street and some of the fruits tumbled from the truck bed and right into our arms (with the driver's blessing – the melons were too bruised to recover).

Or the afternoon we found a broken bicycle and used it to seed a "bike repair shop" in my backyard (all repairs 25 cents).

Or the thunderstorms that brought us running barefoot through the streets.

Or the open fire hydrants.

All of these things were gifts, rewards for doing nothing more than being there.

Then there were the things we actually planned into our days:

The busting up of those clanky steel roller skates to make primitive skateboards; building kites using newspapers, packing string, and pieces of rag for the tail; waiting for the Good Humor man and then eating our treats on the front stoop while they melted down our forearms; chasing fireflies on hot summer nights; playing stickball with real broom handles; setting up a curbside lemonade stand.

Today it has become de rigueur for schools to purchase and build expensive, state-of-the-art (but which art?) playgrounds, multicolored and indestructible. These concoctions are attractive, yes, but whenever I look at one I often wonder if the tens of thousands of dollars in expense couldn't have been avoided in favor of piles of sticks, pebbles, sand, used tires, and castoff wooden blocks from some sawmill.

Then turn the kids free and let them make of it what they will.

This came home to me in spades yesterday when I took my 6-year-old son to the school playground. Despite the availability of plastic crawl-through tubes, intricately twisted slides, and rubberized monkey bars, he and his cohorts fell to making castles out of the wood chips used to carpet the play area.

As I observed him and the joyful intensity with which he went about his recreation, I suddenly saw myself as a child, piling sand at the Jersey shore or making small tepees out of branches in my backyard.

I suppose I am hopelessly behind the times. At the very least, I am hopelessly outnumbered by the parents around me who are busy filling out registration forms to plot out their kids' summers in exact degrees, minutes, and seconds.

If I knew them better, I would tell them a story about the time I played stickball on Van Nostrand Avenue.

I hit the ball so squarely and with such perfect arc that it shattered the green canopy above, sending sycamore leaves fluttering to the ground as I ran the "bases." The Rutigliano brothers scrambled for the ball, and Mrs. Switay screamed at us in Polish to get out from in front of her stoop, and the Good Humor man jingled his insistent bells as a summer rain broke upon us and soaked us to the skin.

My goodness, it was beautiful, and it didn't cost a cent.

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