Recently, our family spent spring break in Italy with two boys of our own, and two nephews all under the age of six. While technically “off the clock,” I couldn’t help but bring my researchers’ eyes along for the ride. This is by no means a scientific study, but this fresh look at youth and this, admittedly, random collection of observations and reminders has left me with ideas and inspiration for the past few weeks. I hope they do the same for you!
- The slides are steeper. In the town where we stayed, the fountain at the piazza’s center was backed by a modern playground comprised of colorful slides, bridges and tunnels, and climb-able trucks and trains. By all accounts, this play space looked like it could have been in Chicago or New Jersey, or anywhere else in the world. Except for the slide. It was STEEP! As if our American-ness wasn’t already apparent in this off-the-beaten path town, the way we gawked at the tall yellow slide signaled that we were not from “around here.” But what insight can possibly be gleaned from the slope of a slide? Like so many European TV programs (if you ever have the chance, see the brilliant David Kleeman’s presentation on the big risks that children’s television takes in other markets around the world), risk looks a little different outside our borders. There was hardly glass on the ground, and no dangerous characters lingered by the swings, but this playground didn’t have signs signaling appropriate ages, and it had one heck of a drop from the top. The fun for kids from this whizzzzzzzz came from taking off, however tentatively, one’s cloak of nervousness to experience the joy and
bravado that comes from tackling a phobia. More was at stake on this slide than on their safer American counterparts. Too bad for all the undercover superheroes in the U.S. just waiting for their chance to fly.
- Play is a language. The highlight of our vacation, at least for me, came not from watching the sun set over a grove of olive trees (although that was nice) or a glass of vino with family (nice as well) but watching my six year old son negotiate a game of tag with a new friend. Beyond a “bon giorno” and a cautious “hello,” the two children had little to discuss. But they were able to gesture and smile their way through a fairly recognizable game of tag (with my son’s new Italian friend sometimes hugging instead of simply tagging!). It reminded me that play is a language all its own, and it travels. The impulse to play is something that adults sometimes try to manage, promote and steer, but the desire to connect in un-productive leisure represents something more powerful than many adults can understand or facilitate. Play pushes its way through barriers of all sorts, including language barriers, to become the language itself.
- They have the same Legos everywhere. Globalization and consumer culture are weighty issues—and ones that marketers often view very differently than the many critics who consider the loss of local flavor (in addition to many other potentially deleterious effects). But there was something amazing about the way that characters and properties bond children across the globe. Beyond Cartoonito’s decidedly dark rendition of Heidi, many of the shows on Italian TV were familiar to our kids. This universal culture might have its downsides—and in the least, suggests we should treat these ubiquitous exports as sacred symbols—but it also serves to make children comfortable across strange lands. When my son saw his favorite Legos in the window of a toy store in downtown Chiavari, he was home.
- “New” can be nice. It could be these specific kids, or it could be this cohort of youth, but the differences in pizza, ice cream, language, and environment and even in other people didn’t seem to faze our young travelers. The excitement came from the same sources it typically did—from really, really good gelato. Or a particularly challenging playground bridge. Or that steep slide. But without making a big deal about what was different, our kids seemed to think that most things were pretty much the same. Kids are shockingly adaptable if we allow them to be. For all the concern that modern parents face about fixing schedules and helping children adjust to new experiences, kids not only survive but often thrive when they must encounter and integrate the “new.” It goes without saying that this is where learning and growth live—not just for kids, but for adults as well.