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I was driving home from work one evening when I saw something that made me slow down the car: three kids, probably 8 or 9 years old, were playing in their driveway. Two of them were sitting on the ground; one was standing. It reminded me of old-time games like Mother, May I? and Red Light, Green Light.

It reminded me of all the incredible summers I had playing outside. There’s something almost magical about having a group of friends play a not-so-organized game – not a sports game, just something fun where nobody really needs a perfected skill to win. Some of my best childhood memories involve going outside during the summer to find something to do. No adult planned our activities. No one drove us anywhere, and no one kept score. We filled our days with whatever came our way.

One of the best summer games was Manhunt, which is basically hide-and-seek with two teams. One team would disperse into the neighborhood, and the other team set out to find them. As people were caught, they were taken to a “jail,” which was usually someone’s front steps.

The twist: a player could free teammates if they tagged “base,” which was usually those same front steps. So if only one player was still on the loose, he could free his entire team if he could get to base unseen. Manhunt was always played at night and always with lots of people. The more people you had, the more fun you had.

During the day, if we were lucky and my mom said OK, we walked about 25 minutes to a public pool which for some reason didn’t allow co-ed swimming. We had to find out in advance what days were girl days so we’d be sure to get in. It’s funny to think of now. I’m not sure what they thought would happen if the boys were in the water too, but we never questioned that. We just waited for our day in the sun.

Sometimes on summer nights, the oddest thing would drive down our street: an amusement ride on the back of a truck. I remember one ride, The Whip, which is kind of like today’s Tilt-A-Whirl. I don’t know what company drove amusement rides around or why they only came every once in a while, but I do know it made a summer night fantastic.

I often wonder what summer memories my kids will look back on. Even though I help shape their summers, I don’t think their memories will be as good as mine. My summers were filled with simple fun. Much of their summer is filled with activities that benefit them in some way, either by enriching them personally or looking good on a college application. I start in January researching what they can do in the summer. I map out their weeks.

Last month, Marirose was commenting that she didn’t think she had enough planned for the summer. (And I assure you, she had plenty.) To her, she needed to be busier, and she wanted to have accomplished more when the summer’s 10 weeks were over.

Imagine what my kids would do if I gave them a jar and a flashlight and sent them out into the summer night. Would they come back with fireflies? Or would they tell me we needed to leave because some activity I scheduled was about to start?

I’m not sure how this happened, but I’ve changed summer for my family. It’s not all bad, but it’s certainly not all good. I guess the challenge is to slip more of that simple fun into their summers. That’s doable because – think about it – there are five people in my family. I already have one full team for Manhunt.

July 2013
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