Last week a child no older than 5 pedaled feverishly down our neighborhood street as if he were heading for an ice cream store. It was a typical summer day, with mom just a few feet behind on her bike. Both were wearing bike helmets and stayed to the right side of the street. That day it was a kid on a tiny bike. Other days I’ve seen electric scooters, hoverboards, and even one-wheeled boards, also battery powered.
Today’s parents are bombarded by marketing aimed at their children. As such, many kids are outfitted with the latest technology. That means everything from iPhones to drones. In 2020 there was $25 billion in toy sales in the U.S. alone, according to NPD Group.
Still, some things never change. Give a kid a brightly packaged toy for their birthday and they may be enamored with it the moment after they’ve ripped through the gift wrapping. But give them a few more minutes with the empty box that contained the toy, well now you have the beginnings of a fort or spaceship.
During the pandemic kids in our neighborhood, and elsewhere, spent hours outside playing the tried and true games of summers past. Hide and seek, backyard tag, baseball, kickball – tiring themselves to exhaustion. For every curse — the pandemic — there is a blessing: kids reconnecting with the outdoors.
A half-century ago kids didn’t have iPhones, bike helmets, tiny bikes or fancy electronics. We played traditional games, but we also experimented with the occasional new toy that had not yet been deemed “dangerous.” Take for instance the infamous clackers. I’m not sure who manufactured the most popular versions of this David and Goliath-like war game, but it was not child tested using rational standards. The clackers were two acrylic balls, about the size of avocados, separated by roughly 18 inches of heavy-duty string. The balls were on opposite ends of the string. The idea was to grab the string in the middle, then begin an up and down motion so the balls would slam into each other at the top, and again at the bottom, making a loud clacking sound. Unfortunately, the acrylic balls would sometimes crack when making impact with each other, sending shards of plastic splintering through the air.
Forget the fact that some of us even used them as weapons, grabbing one ball, while swinging the other one over our heads like a sling. It was amazing how many ended up wrapped around tree branches and street sign poles. Our elementary school even made them available during phy-ed and recess. Huh? Several were launched into the rafters of our school gym where they became twisted around steel girders for the year. No surprise these “toys” didn’t last long on the market.
One questionable toy that probably shouldn’t have been placed in our unsupervised hands was Jarts. Today lawn darts have rounded noses and when tossed through the air pose no threat to anyone or anything that may be on the receiving end. Back in the day, they had noses similar to a javelin. Those steel-tipped darts were usually just fine with an adult present. It’s when we were left to our own devices that they became dangerous. Our favorite version of this game? Toss one high into the air while game participants, scattered around a 50-foot circumference, stood motionless until it came down, hoping it did not land on them. The real test came when it streaked back down to earth. It was a game of bravery, idiocy actually, to stay frozen until that last moment when we were forced to step aside or face impalement. If you moved, you lost. But if you didn’t move, well you truly lost. That’s what happens when 10-year-olds are left to employ their own rules.
Our most bizarre game was skateboard wars. It would involve two skateboarders, no shin guards or knees pads included, and a pair of old broomsticks. The skateboarders would start about 50 feet apart. Each equipped with a broomstick, they’d skate toward each other like a pair of knights jousting. As each passed the other, usually just a few feet apart, they’d try to jam their sticks into the wheels of the other skateboards. If one of the skaters was dislodged from his board, the other was declared winner of that round. Jabs at the front wheels usually led to awkward launches of participants. Bloodied knees and skid marks to the hands were common. Mom never approved of that game.
Kids will always be a target market for big business. In reality, children don’t care how much money we spend on them, but they do recognize how much time we spend with them. At the end of the day time spent is much better than any other investment.
And with some luck, parental involvement may even prevent the occasional skateboarder from being launched through the air because of a broomstick-toting, longboard-jousting knight.
Keith Anderson is director of news for APG of East Central Minnesota. The Forest Lake Times is a newspaper of APG-ECM.