Before cell phones, before highly organized youth sports, and before the internet, there was time. Growing up in the late 80s, it was common for your mother to tell you to play. Of course, we always eventually found something to do.
As I write this, it’s only a few weeks into summer vacation, and I’m thinking back to how I used to spend my time as a kid. Today I suddenly had a memory: “The Summer Lists.”
My mother made Summer Lists for us to consult as bored kids in the 80s
You would know about the lists if you were ever in my parents’ house in the 80s. My mother taped them absolutely to the side of the refrigerator. If she was in the middle of cooking and we were mulling around, she would stand — feet apart, hands on hips — in front of the lists, scanning fervently. If we were aimlessly strolling through the house, she would tell us: “Look at the lists.”
The lists were ideas of what we children could do to entertain ourselves in summer – on our own. The way I remember it, the ideas would pop into my mother’s head randomly; I remember her occasionally grabbing a pen and scribbling something new. She numbered them.
A few years ago, while cleaning her house, my now nearly 80 year old mother came across these papers. She had stuffed them in a closet with the photo albums. She called me on the phone and told me she would finally throw them out; it was funny that she had saved them for decades. I understood why, though. They are memories of summer, of motherhood, of years gone by.
I wanted to see Mom’s Summer Lists before she threw them out
I told her I wanted to see the papers before she tossed them, so she brought them out the next time we visited. There were pages of activities. I was flooded with memories, thinking about those magical years. The appeal, of course, is that most of the activities could be done entirely on our own: adult-free. And, of course, all of them were technology-free.
Here are 20 items that caught our attention on my mother’s 80s Summer List:
1. Design and make your own miniature golf course in the backyard.
2. Go through your room to find things to sell, and Mom will buy them for a quarter. (Note: This seems like a great way to make us get rid of stuff and clean our rooms).
3. Tape paper together and make a long mural or scene (pirate ship or magical land).
4. Make a scavenger hunt throughout the whole yard.
5. Make an obstacle course and time yourselves. Try to decrease your time.
6. Make invitations for a neighborhood kickball game.
7. Set up a frisbee golf course in the yard using trees as “holes.”
8. Make carnival games for little siblings and give them tickets to play. Find prizes.
9. Pretend to make a cooking show and bake a treat. Check with Mom first.
10. Make a pamphlet to advertise an art class or a sports lesson for little kids in the neighborhood.
11. Use chalk to design an entire city on the driveway. Use matchbox cars to complete it.
12. Make cards for residents at the nursing home.
13. Create a “Let’s Make a Deal” game for each other. (Note: “Let’s Make a Deal” is a game show. It consisted of choosing a prize behind Door #1, Door #2, or Door #3 and then receiving either a fantastic or a disappointing prize. Our version of this was getting a dollar or an old rag.)
14. Start a club based on a shared hobby, and plan a meeting, club rules, and activities.
15. Make a newspaper for neighbors with stories about summer.
16. Create a fashion show, each outfit based on a theme or genre.
17. Take polaroids of the dog and create a collage above his dog bed.
18. Find interesting sticks to paint bright colors and create an art piece.
19. Fill up drinking glasses with different amounts of water and use spoons to create music.
20. Paint rocks and set up an art stand.
Reflecting on those days, I realize what makes us nostalgic for that bygone era: adults’ trust in children’s ability to be creative. Much of what we did involved a sense of personal independence, connections to other kids around us, and a sense of community. The Lists were excellent in sparking an initial idea, but it was up to us to take it from there.
This summer, I will try to remember that most of what we need for entertainment is right around us. I’ll remind myself that a few good ideas — along with a patch of grass and maybe some watercolor paint — can inspire a lot of fun.
I don’t have it to throw away those old pieces of paper quite yet. I’ll tuck them into a drawer a while longer.
Then I’ll call my mom to tell her I wrote a story about them.
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