I had to go grocery shopping in a different supermarket than I usually do the other night. For the first time in a long time, my groceries were in brown paper bags rather than plastic, and it took me back to my childhood.
Growing up, I was a big fan of both Lost In Space, and to a lesser extent, Star Trek. (Until it went into syndication, Star Trek was normally on too late for me). Inspired by these TV shows, we used to play “Space Ship”, where we would pretend to be on a futuristic space ship. Of course, a space ship needs control panels, and I would create them, drawing them on, you guessed it, brown paper grocery bags.
Grocery bags had the advantage of being free, were fairly large and, when folded, were relatively stiff. I did several iterations of control panels, as the panels would mysteriously disappear after a while. My panels were heavily inspired by Lost In Space — I distinctly remember drawing the panels of blinking lights — in reality, displays from a Burroughs B205 computer that 20th Century Fox was able to get ahold of — but as time went on, I started to use my own imagination and try to figure out what kind of functions I would want to control — environment for one, navigation for another and came up with UIs for them. I can’t say they were good UIs, but in a way, they helped foster in my interest in user interfaces.
Looking back, I also think it was a wonderful form of unstructured play, on several counts. First, of course, was the creative aspect of creating the control panels. While derived from what I saw on TV, I improvised on what I saw. There was a fair amount of lettering on them, and I think I tried to use something that looked like it belonged on a control panel, rather than simple printing, which helped foster my interest in typography.
Then there were the “Space ship” sessions themselves. I would typically be playing with my sister or sisters, and a couple of kids from the neighborhood. Totally unstructured, totally undirected, we made the rules ourselves, and as long as we didn’t fight with each other or get too loud, my mother really didn’t interfere, aside from sending the neighbors home when it was time.
It bothers me to see how structured the lives of kids are nowadays. They’re involved in many more activities that I was, and I assume at least some of them are fun, but they’re all scheduled, and they’re mostly directed by adults. They don’t get to have unstructured time in many cases, and when they do, some of them don’t know what to do with it. I think kids need to have unstructured, undirected time to create their own games.
They could do worse than grabbing some crayons, some recycled brown paper bags, and creating their own worlds to play in.