In high summer, a Martian air of desolation descends on my street. Most school-age kids around here spend their days at camp or some other structured, adult-run activity, not knocking around the neighborhood in packs looking to make their own fun. It’s very, very quiet. A closing car door or a passing Green Line train registers distinctly in the library hush of a July afternoon.
This is one important way in which city life has changed since I was a kid. Among the contributing factors in our ongoing technology-assisted retreat from public space and public life are the expansion of parents’ work days and of kids’ participation in camps, lessons, teams, enrichment programs, and other school-like activities. It all adds up to a lot less free play than there used to be.
This matters because free play, meaning an activity chosen and directed by participants who do it for its own sake, is one important way that human beings teach themselves and each other how to make friends, get along with other people, make decisions, solve problems, have self-control, follow rules, manage their emotions, develop interests, build competences, and have a good time.
And it’s not just children who need free play. This adult, at least, also craves occasional doses of it, especially in the summertime. With my kids in day camp and no classes to teach, this is the best time to get a lot of writing done. There’s no need to go to the office or, increasingly, to leave the house at all. The combination of Wi-Fi connection and phone brings within reach much of the information I need. So I’m at my desk hour after hour, day after day — the postindustrial workplace boiled down to its efficiently lean, starkly isolated essence.
The other day, having reached a temporary stopping point and feeling a little stir crazy, I went down to the park at the end of my street. It was nearly empty, but, miracle of miracles, there was a potentially ideal opponent shooting around on the basketball court. Sizing him up, I saw that he was younger, thicker, and more athletic than I am, but he wasn’t impossibly quick, and he lacked my mantis-like reach.
We went back and forth in the sun for a few games, not only enjoying the simple pleasures of a ball game and working up a sweat but also working out the unspoken business of a one-on-one between strangers: figuring out how to play hard without devolving into uncivil fouling as we found an even basis on which to match our uneven abilities. He was a deadly long-range shooter, so I had to hound him without letup on defense, but I had the advantage closer to the basket, putting up a variety of midrange floaters and leaners that dated from my formative basketball era, the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Back then, growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I learned as much from getting on the court as I did from actually playing. Showing up at a playground where you weren’t well-known and getting next game could turn into a complex political problem that involved lining up a local broker, negotiating an opportune merger with others waiting on the sideline, or turning back an attempt to jump the line for next by judiciously mixing an appeal to honor and the threat of public shaming. Being a white guy in a largely black world made this all trickier in some ways, easier in others. But however you got on the court, my brother Sal reminds me, “The bigger a deal you had to make to get next, the more everybody would be watching to see if you had the skill and the heart to back it up.”
All that experience, a wealth of trial and error ingrained not only in memory but in my body, was compressed into the simplest of preliminaries at the court down the street from my house the other day. I pointed at myself and then at the other guy while making a little sideways nod at the basket, he nodded back, and we got down to the serious business of free play.
Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His latest book is “Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories.’’