The last play

The weeks that my kids spend at summer camp are usually my opportunity to purge the accumulation of stuff in our house. If I can get it done when they’re not looking, they usually don’t notice that the toy-they-haven’t-played-with-in-two-years-but-is-super-precious-and-can’t-be-thrown-out is missing. This year, like everything else, my annual donate-a-thon has been different.

Firstly, the kids didn’t go to camp so we’ve essentially been together non-stop for 6 months. Secondly, very few places are taking donations of used toys/clothes/books.

My kids’ constant presence this summer has made it very tough to get any of their extensive collections pared back. They go to bed later now so unless I time my covert eviction sessions for early in the morning, I’m out of luck. I can occasionally get them to agree to giving away clothes or books but toys are really, really hard. Even though they very rarely play with them, each toy has an emotional attachment that resists separation, claws out.

But even when I do manage to get them to admit that, no they haven’t played with that pirate ship in three years, and yes, some other child would probably enjoy it, actually getting it out of the house presents it’s own challenges as very few places are taking donations in the pandemic.

So, the toys sit there by the front door, waiting for a new home.

And then something curious happened.

The 12 year old boy who eats two bowl of cereal before bed, who insists that his name is Jeffrey the 3rd-and-a-half (his name isn’t Jeffrey at all), and who thinks it’s hilarious that his armpits smell terrible because it’s yet another way he can torment his sister stumbles across the bag of plastic animals that I promised to one of my Kindergarten teachers and starts playing.

Battle groups of bears

And just like that, time rolls back.

I hear him from the other room, making guttural noises and talking in voices, pretending to be a dinosaur, then a kangaroo, then a bear. I sneak around the corner to spy on my boy/man.

He’s making teams, and organizing battle groups, figuring out who could beat whom (turkey versus kangaroo… who would win?). His elongated pre-adolescent legs folded underneath him in a posture only young hips (or yogis) can tolerate, totally engrossed in play, in a way he hasn’t been for months.

It was so beautiful, and so very sad. He was once an epic player, he could do this for hours, on his own, totally engrossed in a universe of his own imagining. I used to marvel at the way he’d give himself over to the experience with such total intense focus – before fishing and bike riding with his buddies and Minecraft lured him away.

But the playing days are almost over. Take a picture. Hold your breath. Make a wish. And maybe hold onto that pirate ship for just a little longer.

Surreptitious photography


In praise of simple toys.

We’re into week 3 of the school year.  Friendships are being forged, routines established, and materials explored.  As I’ve watched the children explore the room over the past few weeks, I’ve been reminded of the value of simple toys.  Because I teach kindergarten, people in my life (parents at school, acquaintances, relatives) often approach me to either ask me or tell me about toys they’ve purchased or are thinking of purchasing for their children.  Increasingly, these are electronic toys.  It’s not unusual to hear that someone has bought their child an ‘app’ or a child-marketed tablet because they think it’s educational.  They think (and are encouraged to do so by the marketers) that these toys will give their child a leg-up, that they will be more advanced than their peers once they get to school.  They also think that successful completion of these programs indicates that their child has learned something important, particularly to their school success.  Now… before you read what I’m about to write, I want to tell you that I’m not a perfect parent, far from it.  On Tuesday night, I was so sick that I sat my children down in front of the miracle that is the Treehouse channel, put dinner in the oven and prayed that my husband would get home soon.  I well understand the power of electronics to occupy children, to keep them quiet and subdued, and to give adults a little relief.  I’m reminded of what Rachael Lynde tells Diana in Lucy Maude Montgomery’s Anne’s House of Dreams when they’re discussing the ubiquity of the Eaton’s Catalogue in late 19th century Canada.

“Well, they’re splendid to amuse children with,” said Diana. “Fred and Small Anne look at the pictures by the hour.”

I amused ten children without the aid of Eaton’s catalogue,” said Mrs. Rachel severely.

I don’t want to be the Rachael Lynde in this story.  I know that all of this gadgetry is amusing.  I know it occupies kids and keeps them out from under your feet when you’re cooking dinner.  But… educational, brain-developing, mind-stretching?  I doubt it.  I think that success in completing those programs mostly means that you’ve successfully learned how to complete the program.  I’ve met children who can identify letters by tapping on them in an app but can’t then identify them in a book.  It’s largely a conditioning system… ring a bell and the dog salivates… tap the screen and you get a song or a picture or a digital sticker.  It’s a very effective reward system but the learning is dubious.   I don’t think they have any more value than a paper worksheet; you can scroll down to see how I feel about those.  We have some very simple toys in our classroom.  Have a look at the amazing variety of things the children have been doing with them in the past few days.  They aren’t expensive, they last forever, you can play with them in many different ways, many of them are quite beautiful to look at and they all stretch the mind and imagination.  They provoke problem solving and social negotiation with other children and best of all… they’re fun!

Wooden blocks... need I say more?
Wooden blocks… need I say more?

They all start out as cubes but they hinge differently.
They all start out as cubes but they hinge differently.

More architecture blocks

Wow... another amazing simple toy.
Wow… another amazing simple toy.

DSCF0306 DSCF2032

All sorts of learning here.  Building stable structures with unusual elements, relative size, shapes...
All sorts of learning here. Building stable structures with unusual elements, relative size, shapes…

Rainbow Arches, wooden blocks and magnetic tiles the view from above

balance, stability, largest to smallest
balance, stability, largest to smallest