Summer break ended for many Indianapolis children last week as another school year got underway. Even if teachers no longer ask for detailed essays on “How I Spent My Summer Vacation,” it’s likely many youngsters reported on it anyway, if only to their classmates. And if a new ad from Nature Valley is to be believed, it’s likely that the experiences these children had during their brief summer respite were very different from the summer fun we remember from our childhood.
In the now-viral video, an off-screen narrator asks three generations of the same family what they did for fun when they were kids. The grandparents smile as they recall fishing, swimming and picking berries. The parents reminisce about summer days spent building forts and playing baseball. But it’s a much different story for the children, who report spending several hours each day hunched over their cell phones or tablets while texting friends, watching videos and playing video games.
Cue the ominous music as the viewer is left to ponder about the grim future of our society.
Now, this sort of concern is nothing new. When I was growing up, my parents thought our eyes would be ruined and our brains would be stunted from watching too much TV. But it’s likely that their parents fretted about the harmful effects of radio, while the generation before worried about excessive Victrola playing. In fact, I would not be surprised if shortly after Johannes Gutenberg printed his first Bible in the mid-1400s, he told his children to “put down the damn book and go outside and play.”
Over the past century, Indianapolis has grappled with the issue of how the city’s children should best spend their free time. In 1913, the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce commissioned a study of local recreational amenities after city leaders became concerned about the detrimental effect of motion pictures and other commercial recreation on Indy’s youth.
As reported in The Indianapolis Star in April 1914, the study found that the rapidly growing city was suffering from a desperate lack of neighborhood playgrounds, sports playing fields and organized recreational activities, all of which were necessary to “combat the evils of loafing and wasted leisure hours.” According to the study, cities that had invested in playgrounds saw a commensurate decline in juvenile delinquency arrests, which were already becoming a drain on Indy’s finances. In order to ensure a bright future for the city’s youth, Indianapolis needed to invest in school and neighborhood playgrounds, increase recreational activities in the city’s large scenic parks, build sports fields for both boys and girls, and use the system of trails and boulevards to link it all together.
Shortly after the report was issued, the city and the school board entered into joint agreements to open the school yards for playground purposes during the summer months and to offer organized recreation at the large city parks. Over the next decade, the city invested millions in parks and recreation. By 1925, Indianapolis had more municipal golf courses, playgrounds and horseshoe courts than any other U.S. city, and was second in the number of baseball diamonds and tennis courts.
But trouble was brewing in the Circle City. Between 1915 and 1928, the number of juvenile delinquency arrests in Indianapolis quadrupled, with taxpayers shelling out nearly a quarter of a million dollars each year to house the youthful offenders. Although Indianapolis had plenty of recreational options to keep children off the streets and out of trouble, it seemed that many of the city’s youth were channeling their energy into less constructive activities.
A 1929 report commissioned by the Indianapolis Foundation found that the city’s young people had more money and more free time than ever before, but were squandering it on “idling, meandering, gambling, trash-reading, razzy-jazzy-joy-riding, illicit sex practices, bad gang activities, over-indulgence in mere amusements” and generally “recreation of the wrong kind, in the wrong places and at wrong times.”
As the philosopher Maurice Maeterlinck wrote in the late 1800s, “Tell me how a people uses its leisure and I will tell you the quality of its civilization.”
In an effort to determine how and where Indianapolis citizens spent their free time, the Indianapolis Foundation hired experts from the Playground and Recreation Association of America to undertake a comprehensive recreation survey. I recently found a copy of the 571-page report, which details such things as the character of each Indianapolis neighborhood, the play space in each school, and the number of movie theaters, luncheon clubs, and Girl Scout troops scattered throughout the city. It’s a bit of dry read, but provides a fascinating glimpse of life in Indianapolis in the late 1920s.
Children were a special focus of the report, with researchers honing in on four schools that they believed were a representative sample of the city’s diverse population: School 84 in Meridian-Kessler, which had an affluent student body; School 62 in Irvington, with “good economics”; School 22 on the near-southside, serving a primarily Jewish population; and School 4 on the near-westside, which was one of 16 Indianapolis schools designated as “colored.”
The results of the survey were surprising. One third of the nearly 2,000 children surveyed from the four schools said they favored math over reading, art, music, hygiene and other school subjects. However, the percentage of students who preferred math was twice as high in the segregated school (School 4) as the percentage in School 84. Conversely, the students in the more affluent schools (Schools 62 and 84) were more inclined to enjoy art classes.
When asked about their play-time activities, students in School 4 and School 22 reported that they read more than the students in School 62 and School 84. Researchers speculated that perhaps the children of the well-to-do were deprived of time to indulge in books because they had so many other interests to pursue.
Opportunities for games and sports seemed to be lacking for the children who attended the segregated school, however, as none of the 444 students surveyed in School 4 reported playing baseball, football, basketball or Hemmingway, a then-popular game of unknown origin whose rules appear lost to time.
After completing the comprehensive survey in 1929, the Playground and Recreation Association of America issued a number of recommendations, including:
- The Park Board should hold fast to the Kessler Plan
- Marion County should acquire park areas
- The school system should enrich its physical education program, develop vacation schools, strengthen evening schools, and establish a department on school community centers
- Businesses should establish or expand recreation programs for employees
- New subdivisions should include space set aside for parks and playgrounds.
Nearly 90 years later, many of recommendations have been implemented and most are still valid, as are the observations of several elderly women who were asked to tell surveyors how they spent their youth in the 1870s and 1880s.
“We did not have the luxuries which are now necessities,” one wrote in 1929. “We were more dependent on our own efforts for social life.”
Another said, “I fear that the various ways in which my contemporaries and myself spent our leisure would not interest the youth of today, nor would they fit in with modern living.”
She went on to describe a childhood filled with dancing, skating, tennis, bicycling, card games and parties. “Knowing what I do of the youth of today,” she concluded, “none of this would appeal to them – too slow.”