Play memories

During a weekend conference at Bryn Mawr College and at Philadelphia’s Smith Memorial Playground and Playhouse on the benefits of unstructured, “free play,” participants will be asked to share one of their childhood play memories. We thought it was an idea worth mimicking. Read what some Montco notables and Inquirer staffers have to say.

We encourage you to add your own, either by emailing me at or adding yours as a comment underneath this blog post.



Becky Klock, Inquirer fine arts and film editor

The woods, the creek, the wheat field, the skating pond, the sledding hill, the polliwog pool, the tree house (which collapsed with me in it), the forts  and tunnels, the fields of berries and hedges, the thrift-shop  dress-up extravaganzas (a pink taffeta gown with long sleeves and a million buttons up the back, a black velvet number with a big lace collar, and best, a 13-foot-square of parachute silk, which allowed me to be an alpha prince on occasion).

There were 11 girls the same age in a three-block radius — and no boys. All the boys were littler. We didn't do sports — it was the '50s — but we didn't need to. (This was a suburb of Detroit, a few miles away from Eminen's 8 Mile Road. We were 11 Mile girls but didn't know it yet.)


Molly Weigel, reader

I grew up in rural Central Pennsylvania beside a slow-moving, wide green creek called Bald Eagle Creek.  I learned to swim and row a boat early, so from about the age of eight, I was allowed to row out on my own or with a friend.  We would pack sandwiches and lemonade and row downstream pretending we were escaping from an orphanage where we had been treated cruelly.  We'd dock at the old country club boathouse, no longer in use, and eat our sandwiches on the dock — -brave, famished orphans who had managed to steal some of the food our harsh keepers had withheld while they were nearly starving us. 

Then sometimes we'd sneak onto the golf course and turn somersaults on the clipped green that felt spongy under us.  We considered the golfers in their carts annoying interlopers into our territory, so more than once we went into a sandpit and dug holes in hopes that their golf balls would fall into them and get stuck. Then, orphans no more, we'd row home against the current, maybe stopping along the way to eat some elderberries from an overhanging branch, or startling a great blue heron into flight.


Dan Rubin, Inquirer columnist/director of social media

There was no such thing as unstructured play in our Massachusetts town growing up in the early `60s, it was just play. The seasons seemed to offer more back then - the ponds froze solid and we got a ton of snow. My favorite memory is the forts we'd make, using the flat backside of those broad aluminum snow shovels. My friend Gary and I would get a few minutes to arm ourselves with snowballs and ice chunks we'd store in our homemade igloos and then, at the signal, pound each other with everything we had. I think he became a car salesman.


Cindy Auslander, Haverford resident, fitness director and 10th grade dean, Shipley School

I grew up on Winding Way in Merion. I have wonderful memories of playing Baby in the air and Steal the Bacon with every kid in the neighborhood, only going home when it was too hard to see the ball because it was dark. We played in the street, yelling. "Car!" when we saw one coming. No one ever got hurt!


Montgomery County Commissioner Bruce L. Castor Jr.

When I was growing up, there were three of us who were “core” friends: Tom, Joe, and Bruce. We lived in the same neighborhood and could find a way to have fun with anything at hand. Occasionally other kids joined up, but it was always us three. The mainstays of our play were: street hockey, Wiffle ball, and "Neuf" football (depending on season).

Equipment needs were minimal. Each kid needed a hockey stick. Beyond that, only one of us needed to have a Wiffle ball, a Wiffle bat, a tennis ball (for hockey), and a football. Then, with a little imagination and lots of “ghost” players the fun would flow and the hours go by. Rules were made by necessity.

Since we played in the street, a car coming stopped play, for example.

Often we would play on the same team against imaginary opponents or two on one games with the “one” having special rules to make the competition fair. We did play little league baseball, but we had to be able to walk or ride our bikes. Parental involvement was not offered nor wanted. There was no scheduling. Scheduled sports occurred at school. Playtime was scheduled by kids. The organized nature of kid play today was unthinkable. We were in charge and we liked it that way.


Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman

This photograph is of the D.A., circa first grade in Philadelphia. Her only comment along with it was this:

The way life should be.


Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro

I grew up in Upper Dublin, in Montgomery County, with a younger brother and sister. Today, I’m a father to four young children so free play is a necessity and a beautiful thing to watch.

When I was a kid, my brother and I would play a makeshift football game on my sister's gymnastics mat. We played for hours, imagining long pass plays, tough runs, and loads of touch downs. I remember it like it was yesterday. There are few things that bring a smile to my face more than watching my kids play similar games, knowing that the memories they are generating with this free play will last a lifetime.


Montgomery County Sheriff Eileen Behr

Playing stick ball in the street, a cul de sac with about 20 other kids in the neighborhood. The games were pick up and we let all ages play. Started when I was in kindergarten and played into junior high each summer. We had broom handles and cheap rubber balls.

No one needed a glove and we used chalk to draw bases on the street. We learned to share, to negotiate over calls, and we learned the game for one another. No rule books — Sometimes there were as many as six outfielders.

About eight years ago my husband decided to round up the neighborhood kids for a game — including the broom stick for a bat. Same rules — all ages allowed.


Ellen Dunkel, Inquirer digital news editor

My mother has a pocket door from her kitchen to the front hall. My cousin Steven and I played "elevator" with that door. One of us would be the elevator operator and the other would be some sort of interesting, crazy, or glamorous character getting on or off the elevator. It was our own little bit of theater. That cousin now works in Hollywood, editing and directing TV shows (Arrested Development, Community, Entourage, Happy Endings, The Crazy Ones). But when we're together, we still play elevator, hide and go seek and so many of the games we played as kids.


Gary Miles, Inquirer deputy Pennsylvania editor

Jackie and I were playing roofball one day in Levittown, Bucks County, and it was my turn to hit. The idea was to smack a soft plastic ball about the size of a soccer ball off the lip of the roof and out over the head of the opponent. Trouble was, the best part of the roof for that was in the backyard over the living room windows. This time, I misjudged the roof and smacked the ball right at the window on the right. CRACK! I turned around as I heard my mother screech, and Jackie was already halfway home. I saw my brother, Pete, playing with his Matchbox cars in the far corner of the yard. "C'mere, Pete," I said. "Mom wants to talk to you about something." He ran over like the greatest little brother he is. I'm still sorry about that, Pete.


Sandy Clark, Inquirer deputy managing editor

I probably shouldn’t even be alive today. I remember how we used to swing as high as we could, until our feet could “touch the sky,” and then we’d release and jump, trying to stick a landing. These days, I won’t get on hardly any moving rides at the amusement park. Then, there was the time we attached a thick rope to a huge tree in the woods and swung across a deep ditch, back and forth, back and forth, for hours. Wind was our friend. The irony is I was never able to climb the rope in gym class without my classmates forming a human lift under me. Guess I peaked too soon.


Michaelle Bond, Inquirer reporter

When I was in 4th or 5th grade, one of my friends liked a boy in our year. He liked her too and they hung out together during school sometimes. My friends and I decided their "relationship" was serious, so we planned their wedding. When the day came, the other bridesmaids and I wore yellow dresses to school. I brought a ring from home that had a yellow flower on it. We gathered by the jungle gym. A couple of us went to collect the groom, who was playing soccer with his friends. He was not as thrilled with the idea as we were, and we couldn't persuade him to come. Although the wedding never happened, my friends and I had fun planning it.


Jennifer Lin, Inquirer reporter

I grew up in Rydal. We were fascinated by creeks. There were three near our house: one on Wrack Road that flowed across the street at one point; one in a nearby bird sanctuary and one that ran behind houses on Pheasant Road. My younger sister and I would spend hours and hours turning over stones and looking for salamanders or crayfish. At the bird sanctuary creek, we would dig up gray clay and make bowls out of it (who knows what was in the muck!). We also would build dams across the creeks. So many hours wading in the water! Such a fascination with creeks.


Harold Jackson, Inquirer editorial page editor

When I was a child in Birmingham, Ala., the children in the housing project where I lived played a variation of tag and musical chairs using the tall poles of the clotheslines, where our mothers hung their wash, as safe zones. One child designated as "it" would stand at a distance and yell, "One, Two, Three, change your posts," and the rest of us would scramble to reach a new station so as not to be tagged and become "it." In summer, we would play that and other games until it got dark and the streetlights came on, or whenever Mama called, whichever came first.


Amy Worden, Inquirer reporter

I grew up in a century-old townhouse in Georgetown in Washington, D.C. where yards were separated by eight-foot-high wood panel fences.

One of my favorite Saturday morning adventures was climbing the fences, running across the metal roof of a long garage behind our home, scampering down the mulberry tree and, using one of my mother's trusty serving spoons, commencing my own archeological dig in a vacant lot on the site of an old mansion. I unearthed all kinds of pottery chards, some with hints of china patterns, and buttons, even a tiny doll's spoon once. 

The Volta Place playground was a block away and once I had pemission to cross 34th St. on my own, I spent almost all my non-school time there, playing four-square, ping pong and basketball till the sun went down, and when it was too cold or wet, playing penny-ante card games in the director's office.

Brings back memories of the smell of those ubiquitous red rubber balls and leather wafting from the equipment closet on a winter night. I was never bored growing up, not for one minute.


Melissa Dribben, Inquirer reporter

We lived in a suburban neighborhood where there was not much traffic on the streets. Kids from three blocks used to get together to play massive hide-and-seek games until the sun went down and you could hear our parents calling from the doorways that dinner was ready. I would also spend a lot of time in my own small backyard driveway jumping on a pogo stick — I would count each jump and could keep going infinitely. There was also the very high-tech Pensy Pinky ball. “A” my name is Anna …


Russell Cooke, Inquirer editorial writer

In the imaginations of several young friends many years ago, a fallen tree in the wooded area behind our homes in a North Jersey suburban development was transformed into a pirate ship. On the limbs, we could bounce up and down as if we were riding the bounding main. Nearby hanging vines became the rigging from which we swung back and forth across the phantom ship’s deck.


Joe Gambardello, Inquirer reporter

When I was boy growing up in Pennsauken in the 1960s, we loved to play army and the acquisition of anything military — like a real GI backpack — was momentous. One of the best items we got was a green canvas wall tent. It was floorless and sleeping in it was hard — and buggy — but we would not have traded the experience for anything.

One other fun day I recall, was when we had a big snowfall and the neighborhood divided into two armies for a day of trench warfare. By the way, we did not have toy guns, but used sticks and pieces of wood as our weapons and made our gun sounds.


Tony Wood, Inquirer reporter

I suspect in my neighborhood mothers were missing some mops and brooms. We would take them and saw off the bottoms and use the sticks to play "wicky." In Philly they called it half-ball or stick ball, but we considered that to be an inferior version.

We would use the stick as a bat, and a sponge ball or tennis ball, go to the school yard and play one on one baseball. We'd throw as hard as we good until our arms fell off. We also made up complicated rules about what was a single, double, triple, or homer, based on complex geometric configurations. We played until someone hit a ball on a roof or broke a window, in which case we ran as fast as we could.

Refrigerator boxes … you couldn’t buy a better sled. It held three or four, and you slice it up to your needs in a matter of minutes.

Another favorite wintertime sport among the older kids was hopping cars, grabbing on to the bumpers of slow-moving cars … Now that’s an argument for computers.


Philippa Chaplin, Inquirer travel editor

One of my favorite play memories was Hide and Go Seek. I grew up in the late 1960s in Mount Airy, where the houses were twins with lots of space between them and large driveways behind them linking streets. All the kids — me, Toni, Gwen, Rhonda, Janice, Alan and Michael, Kathy, James, Darryl — would gather at somebody’s house. After the eeny-meeny-miney-mo to decide who was it, we’d run all around and through the yards on the block. The front and back door steps provided great coverage, as did the shrubs, and sometimes even trash cans.

The adults knew what we were playing and enjoyed keeping our secret if they happened upon us. The person who was “it” would always ask passersby if they saw any kids hiding, and the answer was always “nope,” with a wink. Once spotted, we’d hightail it back to the base, hoping not to get caught and always crashing into one another. Oh, what fun!


Chris Palmer, Inquirer reporter

No one really knows how to play croquet, particularly when you’re in elementary school. And that’s why my younger sister ended up getting hit in the face with a croquet mallet.

I forget exactly how old we were, but we were in a friend’s backyard over the summer, and one of the participants decided to swing the croquet mallet like a golf club while my sister was standing behind her.

The mallet struck my sister just above the eye, which necessitated a hospital trip. She was OK, thankfully, and despite the barbaric croquet tactics of her friend, the two remained close and actually ended up living with one another in college.

I don’t think we played croquet again after that. Neighborhood activities tended to stick to things like jumping on trampolines or playing capture the flag.


Jane M. Von Bergen, Inquirer reporter

We had neighborhood-wide water gun battles. Our neighborhood consisted of twin (attached) houses with relatively narrow yards between the other houses. The best part would be to get on the front porch — hide, and wait for other kids to come through the passage. Then, bam, spring up and dump a bucket of water on the victims. Really fun.

Tom Avril, Inquirer reporter

We used to spend hours rooting around in the woods looking for colorful beer cans, back when those were collector's items. And of course the usual endless afternoons climbing trees and playing catch.


Carolyn Davis, Inquirer reporter

One winter on DeSota Avenue, the street I grew up on in the Cleveland suburb of Cleveland Hts., Gary Schickler’s parents got a new refrigerator.

But Gary, my pal at the end of the street, got the box.

We didn’t disassemble it to use as a sled. That only would have ruined its true power — as an amusement-park ride in our backyard.

Heaven knows how the cardboard lasted so long, but all that winter we played with the empty box. One of us would get inside it; the other would push it around, turn it over and generally try to move it and rock it so furiously that its occupants would bounce around and come out feeling dizzy — dizzyingly happy.




Philadelphia Declaration of Play hosts conference