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Article updated: 7/17/2011 7:18 AM

Summers of simple play a distant memory in suburbs

Even on the many perfect summer days this month, kids playing by themselves are an endangered species in the suburbs. These empty swings and basketball courts of Carefree Park in Arlington Heights are typical.

Even on the many perfect summer days this month, kids playing by themselves are an endangered species in the suburbs. These empty swings and basketball courts of Carefree Park in Arlington Heights are typical.

 

Burt Constable | Staff Photographer

If she were a kid today, Louise Sadler, a volunteer for the Frisbie Senior Center cafe, no doubt would be playing softball every weekend for some highly competitive travel league.

If she were a kid today, Louise Sadler, a volunteer for the Frisbie Senior Center cafe, no doubt would be playing softball every weekend for some highly competitive travel league.

 

Burt Constable | Staff Photographer

Always busy as a volunteer at the Frisbie Senior Center, 90-year-old Harriet Freedberg remembers a childhood when she managed to turn idleness idyllic.

Always busy as a volunteer at the Frisbie Senior Center, 90-year-old Harriet Freedberg remembers a childhood when she managed to turn idleness idyllic.

 

Burt Constable | Staff Photographer

With bittersweet memories of childhood summers when work often trumped play, retired preacher Ron Houston now has the freedom to enjoy leisurely activities such as playing 9-ball or rooting for his St. Louis Cardinals.

With bittersweet memories of childhood summers when work often trumped play, retired preacher Ron Houston now has the freedom to enjoy leisurely activities such as playing 9-ball or rooting for his St. Louis Cardinals.

 

Burt Constable | Staff Photographer

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In a month blessed with gorgeous days of blue skies and gentle breezes, suburban office workers imagine just how great it would be to be a kid in the summer with nothing to do and the whole world at your feet.

But numerous drives through the suburbs looking for free-range kids turn up nothing more than the occasional bevy of children engaging in organized activities under the supervision of hovering adults.

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The unencumbered child left to his or her own devices is a rare species in the suburbs. Even the temptingly named Carefree Park in Arlington Heights sports empty tennis courts, vacant baseball fields, bikeless bike racks, unused basketball hoops, unclimbed trees, unswung swings, unsolid slides and ball-less fields of green.

Perhaps the kids are all at sports camps, music lessons, dance classes, summer school, movie theaters or tethered to one of those electronic devices with the ability to suck up time even on a perfect summer day.

But memories of those summer days of youth are thriving at the Frisbie Senior Center in Des Plaines.

"I didn't have any of that stuff," 90-year-old Harriet Freedberg says of the myriad material offerings available to kids today, "but I had a great time."

As the youngest of 11 kids growing up in Benton Harbor, Mich., Freedberg admits that her childhood summers "really were not very exciting." But she managed to make idleness idyllic.

"We made our own fun," remembers the woman, who now lives in Des Plaines. "I just hung out with my friends. We played jump rope and kid cards. I didn't have a bicycle, but I didn't know I was poor. It was good."

Life wasn't easy for Louise Sadler, now 81, when she was a 5-year-old orphan comforting her 3-year-old brother as they went off to live in Angel Guardian Orphanage in Chicago. But her memories are of fun summer days.

"I was a tomboy. I was a good pitcher and, boy, I could hit the ball," Sadler says, recalling countless softball games on the orphanage grounds. A nun in full habit ("I never knew they had hair," Sadler says) oversaw the action, but Sadler doesn't remember adults getting involved in the games.

"All I know was I was great," the Des Plaines woman recalls with a girlish grin. If she were a girl in today's world, her ability might have gotten her tabbed to play on a highly competitive travel softball team, filling all her free time and weekends with games and tournaments and leaving her little time for other pursuits such as hopscotch and jump rope.

"I think that would be better," Sadler says, imagining a childhood dedicated to softball. But she adds, "There's a lot of weirdos, too."

That fear of strangers curbs some of that summer fun for kids in this generation.

"There was no trouble," Freedberg says of her childhood in the 1920s and '30s. "It was such an easy way of life."

Easy isn't a word that Ron Houston, 69, uses to describe his childhood in Sassafras Ridge, Ky., along the Mississippi River south of Cairo, Ill.

"I remember what I did as a boy. I lived on a farm and chopped cotton," says Houston, a retired Baptist preacher who plays 9-ball on the billiard tables at the Des Plaines senior center. In addition to chopping weeds out of cotton fields, Houston earned 50 cents a day when he was 8 by carrying heavy buckets of water to the men in the fields. When he grew older, he earned 3 cents for every pound of cotton he harvested.

"Pick a hundred pounds of cotton, you'd get three dollars," he says, recalling how he could reach that goal because school would let kids out to pick cotton. With his nearest buddy, Freddy Sled, stuck on a farm a long walk away, Houston entertained himself.

"I remember spending hours by myself shooting baskets," Houston says, recalling the basketball hoop his dad fashioned for him. "I remember getting a baseball mitt and a ball and just throwing the ball up in the air to myself."

Even when his dad found a job in Chicago and moved the kids to the city, the teenage Houston never had lazy summer days.

"I always had a job," he says, rattling off everything from an usher in an air-conditioned theater to the task of shoveling out boilers. He doesn't envy kids today "lost in their digital worlds," but Houston does have fond memories of the Sunday afternoon in 1954 when he escaped his chores to listen to a St. Louis Cardinals doubleheader in which Stan Musial hit five home runs against the New York Giants.

In clinical reports highlighting "the importance of play in promoting healthy child development," the Elk Grove Village-based American Academy of Pediatrics concludes that play is "a cherished part of childhood that offers children important developmental benefits." Left on their own, kids learn how to share, resolve conflicts, make decisions and find their passions, says Dr. Richard C. Burnstine, a pediatrician with offices in Buffalo Grove, who has served on many American Academy of Pediatrics boards and is a professor of clinical pediatrics at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine.

"Everything is organized so that the free time we had as kids to go out and play and goof around, we don't have anymore," says Burnstine, who is 81. "Kids don't go out and play anymore. They have play dates. We never had play dates, we went out and saw who was around."

While Burnstine acknowledges that parents have legitimate fears that keep them from letting kids roam the suburbs, he looks at his childhood and concludes, "I think the old ways were pretty good."

Who knows what these seniors would be doing if they were kids this summer? But if they want to be as heavily scheduled as a kid today, they need only look at the senior center bulletin board. In addition to the 9-ball tourney, the daily schedule includes Ping-Pong, bridge, arts and crafts, computers, exercise programs, pinochle, square dancing, quilting, Mahjongg, Tai Chi, Scrabble, book club, bingo and wood carving.

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