(Get yourself a cup of tea and settle in to read this longish post!)
School has started and with that, our lives are once again in sync with their schedules and activities. Play dates, music lessons, athletic practice and games, doctor and/or orthodontist appointments, tutoring, SATs, college visits, and so many other activities seem to leave very little free time for everybody. I don’t mean time spent watching TV or playing video games but that space in a day that provides real thinking, inspired creating to happen. When imagination can soar and the mind and body are engaged in pure, unadulterated fun. Do you remember those times? What happened? Somewhere, somehow, we sacrificed our unique, creative selves to conform to trends and succumb to everyday pressures. To make matters worse, we’ve, albeit unintentionally, impoverished our children in the imagination and play department.
Are you surprised by what I’ve just said? How can this be you ask – when you have provided your offspring a super-sized backyard swing-set, a trunk full of costumes, computer and video games, a whole room of toys, shelves of books and entire collections of movies. In addition, there are the gymnastic/ballet/karate/music/sports activities. How on earth could the young ones be deprived?
Think back. To your own childhood. What were the most fun times? I’m betting they had nothing to do with most of the aforementioned items. With the exception of books, everything else is either structured and/or telling one how to do something. They do not provide for that delicious sense of imagination and creative thinking. Instead of ready-made costumes, creating one from unlikely sources is more fun ( aluminum foil over cardboard swords, capes from mom’s old scarves, parchment paper fairy wings). Staging a play with original script, costumes and sets can involve days of creative activity as opposed to a couple of hours watching a video. Having the freedom to imagine alone and with others leads to all sorts of brilliant projects and memories. One acquires skill sets that will be handy forever.
When my daughter was very young, she would put up puppet shows using her stuffed animals as the various characters. Influenced by the classical music she has always loved, her shows were ambitious productions such as Bizet’s Carmen. She’d make out tickets and programs, provide ‘costumes’ to bears, dogs and such and in makeshift settings, we’d watch Pooh bear perform as Don Jose to Carmen elephant as a recording of the entire opera played in the background. It was hilarious but we didn’t dare laugh outright. In the puppeteer’s mind, they were as good as the Met Opera cast. The tough part was sitting through the full length production. Dinner was delayed till intermission, dishes and other chores awaited the finale. I’m so grateful that we taped these priceless performances.
Then there were those play dates when she and her friend(s) would enjoy her amazing third generation doll house. I’d overhear the ‘Darwins’ ( my daughter had decided very early on that Charles Darwin lived in said house) engaged in Sunday activities. The bewildered play date was informed that only Mrs. Darwin and children went to church “because Mr. Darwin was not sure about God and stuff”. I took such pleasure in hearing the adaptation of book to play!
The point I’m making is that children come completely equipped with imagination and skills to play and create on their own. All we need to do is give them that elusive luxury – unstructured time. Lots of it.
So now we come to providing for them in the garden. I’m just going to come out and say it – a play-set has absolutely no business in your yard. I’m not being judgmental. Just hear me out before you take umbrage. In my opinion, parks and playgrounds are meant for regular slides, swings etc., In one’s own garden, a simple swing from a tree is plenty. The one that hangs from our old red maple was frequently employed for certain dare-devil launches that made it a favorite amongst children. They’d watch the ‘demonstration’ by the young owner and then with some trepidation try it out for themselves. Before long, I’d have to start yelling to them to be a bit more careful.
A small tree is terrific for climbing. My husband recalls practically living in the guava tree at his childhood home. He and a friend devoured the fruits and shared adventures aplenty in that hideaway. A real tree house is the best getaway place of all – to read, write secret letters, conspire with friends, loll about, dream, surreptitiously observe the goings on below, escape adult scrutiny. Crawling under shrubs to hide or explore can lead to exciting discoveries of toads, caterpillars and nests. Fairy houses from twigs, leaves and bark await occupation, acorn tea cups set on tiny ‘stumps’ stand ready for a party. Alone or with a friend, there is so much to see, do and conjure in a garden. Later, a trip to the local playground will be a different sort of play with exciting possibilities of making new friends or watching the ‘big’ kids master the monkey bars.
Friends of mine had the Towers Of Death for their two boys. The boys played there endlessly for several years till they suddenly came to the realization that the Towers were no longer high or even remotely scary. In actuality, tree stumps of various heights randomly connected by planks of wood were all that spurred this death defying activity. But what lofty adventures were had in this space!
By providing children with a few, simple elements in the garden is more than enough to fire up their imaginations. They are experts at it. The adults actually spoil the whole thing. These days we can and are guilty of being over-cautious and obsessed with all sorts of potential dangers.
Yet, that absolutely ugly contraption that appears like a giant zit on the face of an otherwise lovely garden, is happily welcomed. I’m talking about the trampoline. The single major cause of countless playground related visits to the emergency rooms all across the country. If one must have such an eyesore to satisfy the precious heirs, then it behooves the extra effort to sink it flush with the ground. If I sound uncharacteristically harsh, so be it. I feel rather strongly about it.
As I prepare to get off my soap box, I’ll sum up with a suggestion – lets create gardens that work for all generations. All elements of play should be harmonious with the surroundings. This is a space that offers itself unstintingly to the curious, the creative, the engaged, the restless, the mindful, the observant and most significantly, the universal inner child.
I’m sharing below some photos I took of a truly charming public garden for children that I visited in Andover MA last month. It combines the elements of instruction and delight quite well. Importantly, it does not talk down to the children. That should be something for us all to keep in mind as we manage our own spaces and lives.