The Best Gift for a Child: Play

gift of playthe best gift -in nature and in play

Mama gave us the gift of play – and it was the best gift she gave. She gave us freedom of expression in creativity.  Small wonder, then, that folks who knew us often said to one of us, “You Miller girls are so creative and fun.”

I’m not sure that Mama set out to help us become creative. Yet what she allowed (and encouraged by her lack of restraints on us) provided the avenue necessary to get our creative juices flowing.

Every season was a wonder. In the spring, Mama enjoyed the smell of forsythia; in summer, lilacs graced our dining room table. Summer’s rain brought her insistence to come look at the beautiful rainbow stretched across farms in our community. No matter the season, she inhaled its beauty and made certain we saw it, too.

gift of playlearning responsibility in play

Yet more than that, Mama allowed us to play. She was a businesswoman and had to be because our father was not living. Her business kept her in her bakery (attached to the house) and on her twice-a-week route to deliver bread in stores in the next county.

In her absence and her busyness, she allowed us to play. The more time we spent outside, the less mess in the house! And play we did.

We fulfilled our responsibilities first (usually!) and then we played. There were six of us and divvying up the work was easy. We figured out a point system for helping Mama on her route. Whoever had the least points “had” to go along on the route.  Responsibilities we had included gardening, mowing, laundry, and housekeeping. I admit that with older half-sisters we were a bit spoiled.

gift of playOur gift of play

We had a sandbox, one swing hanging from a tree, and a former chicken-coup-turned playhouse. In the playhouse, we played school, hospital, bakery, “Amish” (where we “churned” butter using an old churn filled with leaves). When we played “Amish” we switched to Pennsylvania Dutch. 

The field near our yard lent groceries for shopping. Queen Anna’s Lace for fried potatoes, daisies for eggs, milkweed for fish, and clover for strawberries.

Our sandbox became a bakery, a farmland, or a fairyland. Mama gave us old bread pans, cupcake holders, and never minded that we snarfed knives from the kitchen to make our cakes, pies, and bread from sand.

When our sandbox was a farmland, we divided the “town” into farms, complete with houses, barns, and fields. Forks made excellent tools for “planting” and small branches “planted” in the sand provided shade for our farmland people.

Once our sandbox became a fairyland with a castle and drive-through tunnels. A stairway circling from the yard to the top took us hours to create. None of us remembers the password we needed to enter the castle fortress, but we know we had a password.

Our sandbox was far enough from the house. By the time we trekked across the lawn, most of the sand dropped off our clothing and feet. 

In the woods near the house, we created a Pony Express station, complete with letters for mailing. We cut notches into trees to provide a place for envelopes for riders on “horses”.

the best gift in each season

In summer, we made houses on the wash line in the yard.  We created two-and three-room houses using old blankets and sheets. Sometimes we slept in those tents, listening to the katy-did and katy-didn’t lulling us to sleep.

During snowy winter days, we stretched the dining room table as far as the extra boards allowed. There, we built towns with shoeboxes for houses, paper cutouts from catalogs for people, and powdered detergent for snow.

One winter the “town” remained over a week because snow accumulation closed schools.

Some winter days we built igloos in the front yard and were Eskimos. Then we went sledding down the tallest hill on the lane. There were never enough hours in our day to do all that was possible.

Passing on the gift of play

I look back on my childhood and realize how blessed we were to be allowed – and encouraged – to create and play. While we fought like cats and dogs sometimes, we remained friends at the end of the day.  Mama stayed out of our squabbling and (usually) let us figure it out ourselves. In our play, we learned to navigate, take turns, and barter. We learned to get along and create. That is what play does for children.

When we had our half-dozen, I wanted my kids to have as much fun playing as we did. Dave was not as much a fan of the messes our kids made, but he learned to adapt. His work in construction and messes made him want to come home to a clean house. I enjoyed watched the tents and tunnels my kids created in the house or the towers they built.

They spent hours outside in the woods (when tick season was gone) building their own bridges and erecting signs. One summer (with cousins) they dammed up a creek using Dave’s PVC pipes so they could go swimming.

A neighbor boy told his mom, “It’s so much fun playing at the Slabach house. Those boys think of so many things to do.” Yes, they did. Some of it to their father’s chagrin and to my delight.

happy children know how to play

Happy children are those who learn to make their own entertainment. Bored children are the most miserable. Children should never be bored if they learn to make their own entertainment.

Our mama’s work was easier because we had no television, electronic games, or social media to occupy us. We had to find things to do. We learned early on that complaining of boredom or staying underfoot promised work assigned by Mama.

When sorrow comes, play is therapy

Even in times of sorrow, Mama did not put restraints on us. My sister Rhoda remembers the fun she had playing with friends on the small footbridge that was built when our father died. Because visitation was in our home, folks parked in the field next to the house. Rain flooded the ditch between the field and the yard, so the bridge was built to provide access from parked cars to the yard. Instead of forcing us to stay inside and visit with other mourners, we were allowed to play outside with our friends. Mama knew that playing with friends was more healing than sitting in the house with adults who came to express condolences. There would be time later for grieving and, even as we played, we remembered that our lives would be different.

Today I realize that one of the greatest gifts Mama gave us was the gift of play. I passed it on to my kids, and am delighted they are passing it on to their children as well.

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