Summertime used to mean a 'dirt-bead necklace'
Willis Webb

Do you know what a dirt bead necklace is? Chances are if you do, you grew up several decades ago and spent a lot of time outdoors. Summer boredom wasn't a problem.

Most children in the 1940s- 1950s didn't spend much time indoors during summer recess. For that matter, most kids were outside after school hours during the school year.

Children of that generation played outside and played hard. Going barefoot all day was ordinary. Dirt bead necklaces were adornments that had to be surrendered to a (yuk!) bath before bedtime.

Kids played scores of outdoor games. Playing in the dirt and using it to build homes, stores or schools developed vivid imaginations in most. A youngster could build an entire town in the dirt, particularly if there was access to a little water.

Or, one could find materials left on a building site and erect a playhouse, a clubhouse or a fort.

There wasn't much choice about playing outside. First, there likely was no air-conditioning and no television much less all of today's modern technological marvels in homes, so there was little advantage to being inside. Additionally, it was likely moms were mopping floors or doing laundry or canning vegetables and fruits and didn't want children under foot. So, kids were sent outside and challenged to learn to like playing there and to develop an imagination.

If there was no swimming pool (and there wasn't in many small towns then), when a youngster was old enough to ride a bike to a friend's house where there was a creek or swimming hole, it was a way to cool off and enjoy water games.

In the '50s and '60s it was even okay to be a loner and go play in the woods, take a lunch and spend the day being GI Joe, Daniel Boone, The Lone Ranger or Tonto.

Every day could be very different.

Kids had their special places outside the house. Places where they could play with toys or read a favored book, out of the sight of that sister or brother who pestered them.

A child could learn about trees, plants and creatures. And be safe.

Neighborhood dynamics had a way of teaching about social things. Every kid in the whole town was in the same situation. "Best friends" might change from week to week, based on disagreements but youngsters didn't form gangs to underscore the differences. Children generally developed enough social skills to make up with friends with whom they were angry.

This kind of scenario is still possible. I think small communities probably have a leg up on metropolitan areas when it comes to physical health for kids. There are more opportunities for kids to participate in outdoor activities. In little towns, the proximity of parental workplaces to home and to facilities allows parents to be involved with their children in healthy activities.

Rising rates of obesity in children, increased boredom and a lack of physical activity definitely increase the trend. Coupled with the unhealthy fast foods most of us consume in large amounts, improved physical health begs for the opportunities of small towns or even more the practices of summer entertainment 50- plus years ago. Personal safety is, of course, more of a consideration in big cities.

Today's children have creature comforts, modern conveniences, instant communication and technological wonders that occupy their minds a great deal but increase the tendency to ignore the benefits of outdoor physical activity. Technology might keep the mind busy, but it doesn't seem to challenge youngsters to independently develop their imagination and creativity.

Modernity isn't fighting obesity as well as playing outside can. After all, a dirt bead necklace can be a badge of honor.

Once in a while, the good old days aren't so bad.

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2009-06-04 digital edition

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