“So what, pray tell,” the voice on the phone sighed in exasperation, “do you do for entertainment?!”
I smiled as I looked around the room. At that very moment, my little guys were marching around the room, beating on tin pie pan drums. Newspapers shaped into boat hats were perched on their heads, and their little feet kept time to the rat-a-tat-tat of their drums. We’d been to town earlier that week and watched a parade. Now, in the safety of home, they were re-enacting what they’d observed in town.
That’s how kids play. No matter their race, status, or geography, children watch, observe, and then copy what they’ve seen and heard.
The man at the other end of the line was part of an organization that was responsible for welcoming new folks to the area. He wanted to sell a coupon book to me. I’d be saving hundreds of dollars by using the coupons, and I’d become familiar with our new surroundings in Albemarle County (Virginia) in the process. Local businesses were offering discounts to help folks learn to know the area as well as to promote their own businesses. I love discounts, so it sounded like a good idea to me–until I heard the options.
One offered an oil change at a discount.
“I’m sorry, sir,” I responded. “My husband does his own oil changes.”
Next he mentioned a coupon which offered free wine at an exclusive restaurant with the purchase of a dinner. I explained that we don’t sample wine, even if it’s free.
Still another establishment offered a discount on cable TV for three months.
“We don’t have a television,” I told the man.
The local movie theater had a coupon for a discount of some sort. We’ve never visited a movie theater. And the largest video rental in town offered one free rental for a weekend.
“I suppose you don’t have a VCR either.” Was that a touch of sarcasm I heard in his voice?
“You’re right,” I told him. “We don’t have a VCR.”
“If you had coupons for a discount at a grocery store, fast-food restaurant, or doctor’s office, I might be interested,” I told him.
Don’t get me wrong. I love coupons and discounts and sales! But it’s not a bargain if I won’t use it. So when I told the man I wouldn’t need his coupon book, I sensed his frustration. He’d probably never had someone turn him down for the reasons I gave.
I’m sure he couldn’t imagine a life without wine, TV, movies, or videos. So in exasperation, he asked, “Just what do you do for entertainment?”
How could I explain to him the joy I experienced watching my kids create and experience life with their own initiative and creativity? How could I help him understand that a child’s mind is the best resource for entertainment–provided that his mind has been fed a wholesome diet? How could he ever understand unless he’d seen it himself?
A few weeks ago, our kid’s cousins visited for a few days. They spent hours with our boys in the woods behind the neighbor’s house–creating a swimming hole out of a creek bed. They started out with a half-dried creek and a few inches of water, but after many hours of damming up the sides, the water had risen several feet.
After a few days, they had plenty of depth for belly flops and butt smackers. Their swimming hole had to have fresh water, they reasoned.
So they channeled water from the creek through a discarded PVC pipe. Another pipe burrowed down in the water created an outlet to the other side of the creek, so the water was flowing continually. Try to explain those hours and ingenuity to the man who wondered what we do for entertainment!
Fresh air, cool woodland breezes, and exercise from building helped the boys fall asleep at night. How much better it was, creating their own amusement rather than sitting in front of “the tube.”
A few days later, I found my five-year old in the side yard. “What in the world are you doing?” I asked as I rescued the post-hole digger from his hands.
“I’m making a swimming hole just like the guys,” he explained.
He’d spent only a few hours there with his siblings, but he heard his brothers describe their building process, and he was ready to begin his own.
I’m a firm believer that kids should be allowed to get dirty. I find enjoyment in seeing a boy with a dog and a smudge on his face. That’s evidence enough to prove he’s been playing hard and having fun.
At the same time, I don’t like handprints marking the walls of the house. At times, it’s the price I have to pay for my belief that creativity can’t be developed to the max without a little mess or fuss.
I confess that there are times when it would be easier to plunk a kid in front of a video or movie than to allow him to imagine, pretend, and create. It would be easier than monitoring the culprit while he cleans up his own mess. There are days when I am tired of the mess–when I promise to lock all doors, drawers, and closets now and forevermore.
Yet when I take the time to realize that we’re building lives, I know it is worth the effort. That’s why I believe every kid ought to have a sandbox and Lego or building blocks. That’s why I allowed my kids to build their own two-story clubhouse in the back yard out of scrap lumber, even if it isn’t built according to specifications!
I’d rather have my kids pretending in play than to have them copying what they’ve seen and read that’s not top-of-the-line. I believe that through creative play, a child can learn and grow.
I learned my best math in first and second grade, when our teacher’s husband designed a grocery store at the back of the classroom. Using appliance boxes, he created a building, complete with a door, windows, and a roof. Mothers donated empty cereal boxes and canned goods.
Those were the days before “centers” were part of the classroom, yet that store became our own math center. We took turns being customers and clerks. We didn’t have calculators or electronic machines that told us the exact amount of change needed, so we had to do it by hand. I can still out-change any clerk at a checkout — thanks to my first and second-grade grocery store experience.
These days, when I become frustrated with the havoc in my house, when I become weary of the mess that goes with creativity, I remember that question across the phone line.
I recognize that giving a child permission to imagine and create in play is giving him potential to succeed as he learns to use his mind.
And I know that, in this house, we’ve got one of the best home entertainment centers in the world!
This story was published fourteen years ago, when my kids were ages 5-15. It’s found in Southside Glimmers. While Dave and I can look back on our parenting days and name things we’d do differently, allowing our kids to play outdoors instead of watching television is not one of those things we’d change. I had a mom tell me once that our kids were so creative and fun to be with. Her boys begged to come play at our house. Our kids were creative partly because of genetics, but mostly because of the choices we made in our home. You want creative kids? Let them imagine, create, pretend, dream, and play.