recess radio program

Kids on the Move
    by John Cech

Today we're celebrating the day the clamp-on roller skate was patented -- a truly important invention in the history of childhood because it gave kids another exhilarating way to sail through their young lives. Children have been finding ways to transport themselves, literally and imaginatively, since the first pull toys of Ancient Egypt, from the 11th century B.C.E., to the Roman hobby horses that over the years would travel to England and eventually get wheels attached to them in the late 19th century and become, in a few more decades, the first bicycles. These early locomotors, made out of wood with metal-hooped wheels, could weigh as much as a hundred pounds -- no wonder they got the nickname "Bone-shaker."

It didn't take long until those Victorian bicycles got streamlined and turned into pieces of sculpture. There was one superb piece of engineering called the "Otto Ordinary," with a 46-inch front wheel, that was made in Chicago in the 1880's -- and its companion, the Fairy Tricycle for young ladies, with its three, delicate, spoked wheels. The dream bike from my own childhood was the Schwin Black Phantom from the 1950s, which has been described as "the most coveted bicycle of its time" -- with its white-walled balloon tires and chrome everything. Like all the other kids in my neighborhood, I had to settle for a Roadmaster (mine was blue and white) -- which could haul a load of newspapers and a friend in a pinch. Today, of course, there are radical, off-road BMXs, on which adults, fully clad in total body armor, are leaping over daunting dirt tracks, along with adventurous, fearless, pre-teen boys.

There were other vehicles, for other purposes, that evolved with the emergence of modern childhood. For example, sleds progressed over the centuries from a simple board on two sticks to Samuel Allen's Flexible Flyer, which was invented in the 1890s. Scooters, too, have had a very interesting history, from basic platforms on something that rolled (like roller skates) to art deco models from the 1930s that look like they came out of an early Batman comic book, wings and all, to today's hi-tech, state-of-the-art skate boards. Can Segues for toddlers be far behind? One can almost see the lines of preschoolers leaning into the bars of these new two-wheelers, scooting down the sidewalks of our cities.

Perhaps the real stars of all the forms of transportation for young people are the peddle cars, which had their zenith in the 1920s, when the original Richie Rich and his friends got to ride in Panhards, Citroens, and boat-tailed Bugattis, with two-toned paint jobs and leather trim. You can see knock-offs of them, which now have electric motors, in those high-priced toy catalogues that start appearing in our households just when children begin writing their Christmas wish lists. As for me, I'd prefer the home-made fire-engine that can seat 10 kids, like the one nailed together by the Little Rascals for one of their adventures. I can still see that unbelievable contraption, loaded with kids, moving miraculously across the screen.

Copyright 2006 John Cech

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February 2006
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"Recess!" is a co-production of the University of Florida's Center for Children's Literature and Culture and WUFT-FM, "Classic 89."