“I’m watchin’ him!”


‘The “Playdate”, back in Midcentury Modern Times.’

Last week I wrote about the Midcentury Modern custom of sending a high-school social studies class on a field trip to a maximum-security prison. I say “custom” because, frankly, I was astonished to find that many of you readers out there had done the very same thing. (And that’s not counting those of you who went to the very same high school as me.)

This week I’m curious to see how many of you grew up experiencing the Midcentury Modern version of the “playdate”.

“Playdates”, for those of you who don’t have, haven’t had, or don’t know anyone with children, are when parents or caregivers (what we used to call “babysitters”) set up specific times and places (“dates”) for kids to get together to “play”.

I just love that there is an actual Wikipedia entry for “playdate”. If you don’t feel like clicking, here’s what it goes on to say: Playdates have become common because the work schedules for busy parents, along with media warnings about leaving children unattended, prevent the kind of play that children of other generations participated in.

Hmmm. Just what “kind of play” was this?

Well. We rode bikes (without helmets, often with siblings perched on the handlebars, and sometimes for extra excitement we followed in the foggy wake of the mosquito-spraying truck), went skating (on frozen flooded cornfields in the winter and hot cracked sidewalks in the summer), made snow forts and tree houses (Middle Younger Brother Roger built a memorably elaborate one with three stories).

Middle Younger Bro Roger’s three-story treehouse

Inside the treehouse. Which you could, no doubt, sublet for big bucks here in NYC. Excuse me, but is that a vacuum cleaner?

We played vigorous games that involved much running around and squealing, like hopscotch and tag. We caught fireflies in summer (put them in jars, poor things, or ripped off the lighting-up bits and used them to decorate ourselves — see “Remembrance of Watermelons Past” for more.) And we waged “wars” with, depending on the season, snowballs or overripe persimmons as weaponry.

A couple of free-range children, Only Sister Laura and Littlest Younger Brother Doug, terrorizing the hood on their bikes

Most of the time we children were, as Wiki says, “unattended”. We formed our own groups and ran around the neighborhood with no regard to boundaries or property lines, knowing to avoid the Yard With The Mean Snarling Dog or the House With The Scary Old Lady. (She would open her mouth and thrust her dentures at us. This was really scary since we didn’t know about false teeth; we thought she could just sort of do that with her mouth. Sheesh.)

If we were lucky, we got to play at one of our grandparents’ farms. This usually happened at a family reunion. The grownups were usually inside “catching up” and drinking coffee, while we kids raced around daring each other to do reckless things. I recall a particularly exhilarating form of fun involving jumping onto a moving cart meant to hold milk cans (instead of Henry cousins) while it bounced and jounced at breakneck speed down a hill behind the barn.

Grampa Henry, in “attendance”, encouraging small Henry cousins to play on the tractor

If we were “attended” at all, it was usually by an older child or hapless porch-bound adult who was instructed to “keep an eye on” the kid(s). (That’s where the “I’m watchin’ him” of the title comes from. This was what said “attendant” would peevishly whine, usually right about the time some little kid was about to eat a bug.)

Oh, and every once in a while you’d hear “Somebody’s gonna get hurt,” usually from some aunt or uncle covering his or her ears to block out our joyful shrieks. But (mostly) we didn’t. We (mostly) survived to play another day — without “poking anyone’s eye out” or “breaking our necks”.

I was pretty little, so I’m pretty sure an adult was actually “keeping an eye on me” here

By now you’ve noticed that most of our playing was done outdoors. This was only partly because being outside was good for us. See, most mothers then (or at least the mothers of the kids I knew) didn’t “work”. At least not at jobs where you left the house and/or earned money. I did know one mom who was a teacher, but that sort of didn’t count since she was at home when her kids were.

So, instead of setting up “playdates” to deal with “work schedules”, our moms would just, basically, throw us all outside. Where we stayed. Oh, you could come in for the odd glass of milk or stray oatmeal-raisin cookie, but you were pretty much expected to make yourself scarce till suppertime, when your mom would step onto the back porch and call. Me, I would have loved to have sat reading inside on the couch all my free time, but my mom said I would “turn into a houseplant”, and threw me outside, book and all.

Scott, Roger and Me. On a “playdate” with our wagon

This happened in all weathers, though sometimes when it rained mom would cut us some slack and let us rummage in the attic. (See “In an alternate universe, I would have been a redhead” for hilarious detail.)

Was this only a Midwestern Thing? Nope. I have it on good authority (from The Dude himself) that he and his cousins Jack and Charlie weren’t just shooed outside. They were dropped off at Big Reed Pond near Montauk to fish and camp (in sleeping bags, not tents) all by themselves, and were picked up the next day. (Aunt Eleanor would honk the car horn, and they’d come running.) They were eight, nine, and ten at the time.

The Dude (holding snake) about the age he was when camping under the stars alone. Well, his cousin Charlie (in suspenders) was there too. That’s Dude’s brother Bill smirking in the corner. Not sure where fellow camper Jack was

Even my hilarious Hairdresser Pal, Anthony, who grew up in Brooklyn, said he and his buddies played outside all the time — stickball, kick the can, all those classic Woody-Allen-movie games — pretty safely, and with no adults around. Though he did say the Mean Kids would sometimes steal your marbles.

Well, we “children of other generations” are grownups, and have been for a while now. Some of us had kids of our own and (okay, I’ll admit it) scheduled the occasional “playdate”. But, I’m happy to report that The Child, Millennial though she may be, did get to experience some play the good old-fashioned Midcentury Modern way:

Evidence that “staying-outside-till-mom-calls-you-to-come-in” did in fact make it through to the next generation

New York City. February 2017

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45 thoughts on ““I’m watchin’ him!”

  1. Stan

    Great Carlyle memories, Alice! We West-Siders often wondered what you East-Siders were up to. But what about after dinner? On the West Side, in the dark, armed with chalk and flashlights, we played a slow-moving, never-ending game of hide-and-seek, where the Hiders left chalk arrows on the sidewalks for the Seekers to follow aided by the flashlights. It only ended when someone’s mom would holler (and if we were in hollering range). We also hung around the corner street lights trying to trick the moth-seeking bats into following a tennis ball down to street level where we took swings at them with wiffle-ball bats and tennis rackets. A cruel sport, or it would have been had we ever actually made contact. And sitting around the back yard, star-gazing. We could actually see the stars back then, remember? Or just hanging out together in lawn chairs by the light of home-made tiki torches made from kerosene-soaked cattails and telling ghost stories. Playdates, indeed.

    • Homemade tiki torches! Wow! Now that’s some pretty sophisticated Kid Stuff, Mr. Stan. I’m not sure we messed around with fire. (Fireflies, yes. And fireworks too. But actual fire? Don’t think so.) I would have loved to have hung around with you West Side Kids, if only to take a turn trying to whack a moth-seeking bat! Thanks for adding to the Memory Bank xoxo

  2. My kids get a dose of free-range, too. Older 2 kids walked to school from a young age, sometimes by themselves (gasp!). And the youngest disappears for chunks of time, usually roaming the woods or taking a run around the neighborhood.

    I know people who won’t let their kids play in the yard by themselves ( the kids are about 10, and they have a 6ft privacy fence!) because they are so afraid someone will snatch them. It’s no wonder their kids have anxiety. My best advice to parents is to turn off the 24-hour news. Things aren’t as dangerous as the news would have us believe.

    What is really sad is that the majority of students at my son’s school live close enough to walk, but they ONLY walk on “National Walk to School Day.”

    • “National Walk to School Day”??? OMG. I had no idea things had gotten that bad. I would have a hard time raising a young child these days, that’s for sure. Probably get arrested like a New York Times reporter did recently. She left her four-year-old in the car (buckled in, doors locked) while she ran into a 7-Eleven on her way to the airport in Chicago after visiting her parents. Some “well-meaning” person called the police, and when her plane landed in New York, she was arrested (!) for something like “neglect of a minor”. Well. Since she was a reporter, she wrote about it. Which might have helped her deal with her shame (she said in the piece that her shame was the worst part of the experience, even worse than having to get a lawyer and appear in court). Heavy sigh goes here. Oops. I got so indignant that I almost forgot to thank you for commenting! So, thank you!

  3. The trip down Memory Lane took me to Further Lane and beyond, oh so long ago. Boisterous kids during wonderfully endless summers happily gallivanting around Amagansett (not just in pursuit of innocent fun mind you). Cousin Jack and I were mischievous rascals, you see. One night our impishness took us to all the homes to slyly remove the family name signs at the beginning of the driveways which we then carted to the beach and stuck randomly in the sand. We cackled the next morning at seeing the beach goers in an uproar over residents now marking their spots on the beach with gaudy printed signs. And Aunt Eleanor helplessly rolled her eyes knowing full well who was behind the prank.

    Thanks, Alice, for sparking memories of a bygone era!

    • Oooooo, you two really were mischievous! I can just see the baffled looks on the faces of those beachgoers — and, yes, I can just imagine Eleanor’s reaction. She would be way too amused to get mad (!) Thanks for sharing your memories with me, M! xoxo

  4. I was born in 1965 and lived in the East end of London (Stratford – where the Olympic stadium is now). Our days during the school holidays & weekends were always out on our cycles playing in the streets from morning to night. We used to congregate in the local launderette if it rained! Epping Forest & Hackney Marshes were on our doorstep for our den building & tree climbing escapades! Larkswood Lido wasn’t far for our swimming days in the sunshine ? Aah … sweet memories ?

    • Thank you, Linda, for sharing your childhood memories. I have a feeling I would have really enjoyed hanging out with you! I’m pleased to see that even City Kids — City Kids in Big Ole London at that! — were allowed to roam free and be kids. Sounds like a lovely childhood xoxo

  5. Love it! This is how it was. I’d be gone on my bike all day. As long as I was home before dinner, which was always served promptly at 6 pm, I was okay. We live in radically different times now, don’t we?

    • Ah yes. The 6 PM dinner. With glasses of milk at every place. Those were the days, weren’t they? Makes you wonder what Kids These Days are going to be nostalgic about. But you can bet there’ll be something! Thanks, Christine!

  6. This brings back such memories! We would ride our bikes to the playground, the pool, the gas station, to school. Everywhere! We would roam the allies and eat the berries growing over the big house’s fence. We would form clubs, get in “fights” then make up. We only came in to cool down for a bit or grab lunch. My youngest now is like that all of the time but my oldest a little harder to get off the couch. I’m in central Ohio so I can vouch again for the mid-west that this was life and this is what we strive for it to be still.

    • Ah, alleys! Does anywhere even have alleys any more? So glad your kids are ‘allowed’ to play outside. You’d be surprised how many parents won’t let their kids do anything unsupervised, especially here in New York City. Did you have persimmon fights? Where you’d throw overripe fruit at each other? Oh, and thanks for reminding me of clubs. My two best friends Susan and Becky and I had the SAB Club (for Susan/Alice/Becky). I’m pretty sure we even made badges. Sigh. xoxoxo

      • I’ve never heard of persimmon fights. No, it would me more of a “your playing more with my sister than me….” Yes, for the clubs we had a president (which would spur another fight bc everyone wanted to be president) and we would give the crappier jobs like secretary or treasurer to younger siblings.

  7. It makes me sad to think that kids don’t just head outside anymore! The hours we would spend traipsing around on our bikes and making forts were amazing (even though I ended up being more of an indoors adult) and I wouldn’t trade them for anything!

    • So glad to have found another Kindred Spirit! Thank you for weighing in, and agreeing that traipsing around is the best way to play–even now, I’m thinking

  8. Susan Becker

    Loved this blog- love all your blogs! Our mom kicked us outside to play as well, and we had to be home for dinner when the whistle blew at 6 pm. We had total freedom to roam on our bikes and with our friends and it’s a shame that kids today are much more limited. My kids played outside a lot but in our yard and in front of the house but visiting a friend involved help from parents. Such is life in a more urban place.

    • Thank you, Susan! So glad you like the stories. And yes, those were the days, weren’t they? The days of unlimited play Outside. I’m not sure we appreciated it at the time, since we had no choice (!) But so glad we got to experience unfettered play, and that your kids did too.

    • So glad to hear you Eighties Babies got to wander and explore. The Child was a Nineties Girl, and got to experience this a little, but certainly not as much as I would have liked her to. Maybe the World was just as scary then, but we just didn’t know about it as much like we do now? In any case, so glad to hear from you!

  9. Reading your memories from your blog, is one of the highlights of my week. I love seeing all your treasured photos too. I horrified my son yesterday by telling him that I used to sit on my sisters handlebars whilst we hurtled down a steep hill, no helmets and into a blindbend with parked cars blocking our path, forcing us to round the corner, blind, in the middle of the road. Somehow, I’m nearly 40! I do hope my son gets to experience this a little. But with less broken bones than I received…….Thanks for joining the #weekendblogshare

    • Ah, Hannah. So glad you too (oh Young Person!) got to do a bit of ‘exciting’ bike riding as a girl. And that you survived to tell the tale, with all bones present and accounted for. I’m also glad that you enjoy reading my stories! Thank you again for your comment — and, of course, for hosting the #weekendblogshare (!) xoxoxo

  10. Beverly

    Living on the farm until I was 18–spent lots of time outside , swiming in the river, playing in the haymow and treehouse, trying to find the baby kittens — it was a good life! Love your stories. Aunt Bev.

  11. Thanks, Alice, for triggering a trip down Memory Lane. While I spent a healthy part of my life also outside frolicking in my own town in CT, the best horsing around was summers in Amagansett with the Cousins, especially Cousin Jack, where we did nothing but go cavorting outside far from the wary (and weary) eyes of Aunt Eleanor and Uncle Doc.

    Having lived in California now for four years, I have yet to see children, though I am told many of our neighbors have them. Sadly, Playing Outside is from a bygone age.

    • Oh, Madeleine. I can only imagine how much fun it was to play outside with your Whitmore Cousins! I’m so glad that this custom still existed when The Child was a child. She and her buddies were actually allowed (and encouraged) to go over to Aunt Eleanor’s on their own to jump on that amazing trampoline. Too bad kids these days are missing out. xoxoxo

  12. Regina M. Hewston

    Ah, yes… the foggy aftermath of the mosquito-spraying trucks. Life as well in the Long Island ‘burbs in August for sure! Love your reflections and recollections. Always fun reading!

    • It’s fun hearing from you, Regina! And fun hearing that kids in other parts of the country were equally fascinated with the mosquito-spraying truck (!) Thank you for reading — and commenting!

  13. I love this one Alice! I played outside all day every day. We would come in during the heat waves (100+) and sometimes if it was raining. Moms always knew we were within hollering distance or which friend’s house to call. I’m too nervous to let my kids do that today. Thanks for the laugh!

  14. sk888888

    Running down the street, following the mosquito truck!!! And the iceman! And the scissors man! And if the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile was actually coming to OUR LITTLE TOWN, well, that was a banner day, indeed.

    • The ‘iceman’ and the ‘scissors man’? Wow. You got me beat. And you can bet I would have given a bite of my Bonomo’s Turkish Taffy to have seen the Weinermobile. Thanks for stopping by (!)

      • sk888888

        Well, since we had the Oscar Meyer plant in Philadelphia, we weren’t too far away from the Weinermobile. This was l-o-n-g before it started traveling far & wide. And, yeah, the scissors man with his wheel on his cart for sharpening stuff – just what we kids loved running behind!

  15. janetmneal

    Yep. Same here. I used to take my bike and go exploring. By myself. For hours. Into the woods or fields, where there was no one around. Or was there…

  16. Jim Nolan

    Beautifully written piece, Alice. I remember that dogs were free to roam, too. And their favorite day of the week was garbage day.

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