Off The Couch and Onto The Street

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:05

For one day every year, city kids are reminded of the joys of playing outside

By Philippe Theise

Rookie skully shooters, veteran disc throwers, and hundreds more filled Thomas Jefferson Park in Upper Manhattan for Street Games, a clinic on urban pastimes new and old.

For four hours, children toed parkour stations, crossed hockey sticks, skipped rope, flipped skateboards, swatted handballs, and shot baskets; off the pavement, they played football, kickball, soccer, and Ultimate Disc on the park's green artificial turf, where a DJ mixed tracks by classic and contemporary artists like Stevie Wonder and Bruno Mars. In all, 24 activities took place during the annual event, which the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation first staged in 2008.

"It's important that kids learn the old-fashioned games," said Stephanie Smith-Long, who grew up in Harlem playing stoopball and handball. "If they go to a park, they'll bring their mitts and balls. They don't know how to make a game with chalk."

Nearby, her 12-year-old son, Donovan, used plastic bottle caps to play skully, the marbles-like game with a playing area composed of chalk squares. Smith-Long, 48, said she and her playmates would stick pieces of chewing gum between two poker chips to make their game pieces.

Atiya Carswell said she played hopscotch and double dutch as a youngster. Clad in kneepads and a helmet, her 7-year-old son, Von, tried to flip and land on a skateboard nearby. "I had to force him to come out today," Carswell said. "He wanted to play wrestling with the Wii."

Members of the Technical Artisans Collective, a group of theatre industry workers, set up an obstacle course composed of wooden beams, bicycle inner tubes, black plastic cones, and a crawl-through cardboard cylinder.

Co-executive director Kim Guzowski said that the course's physical materials and demands help children lose themselves in the activity.

"All of the self-consciousness tends to disappear," she said. "It's not a test, it's for fun."

Some children started learning the hang of familiar games in unfamiliar settings, or altered versions. Nine-year-old Thomas Strouble, Jr., said that street hockey felt more awkward than gym hockey.

"There's bumps, instead of the ball," he said, describing his stick blade's rough contact with the pavement.

And Kristen Saintilus, 12, talked about adjusting to wheelchair basketball.

"When I was trying to shoot, the wheelchair would move backwards," she said. "So, it was kind of hard for me because I couldn't really get it in right."

On Saturday, some of the adults were busy with their own pursuits. Marcia Toms carefully selected individual rods from a pile of pick-up sticks at the "jumbo games" station as parks department instructor Cathy Mitchell awaited her turn.

"That don't count," Toms claimed at one point, hoping for a do-over after the wrong stick stirred.

Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who took a turn in a soapbox car, said she appreciated the community-building effect of the event. "It's a way of sharing stories," she said.

At 3 p.m., instructors broke down stations and the New York Knicks' basketball truck, which earlier had two hoops protruding from its right side and a line of youthful shooters in front of each, drove away. Two children took last rides in soapbox cars.

When it was over, the action returned to the oval-shaped playground near the center of the 15.52-acre park, which includes swings, slides, and a jungle gym. Adults sat on benches, and kids yelled and ran.