A most favorite pastime of mine during the pandemic days of summer and fall, splattering into the wetter and colder days of winter, is watching kids outside: carrying on as life was before, not even bothered by mask requirements. This has given me great hope. Imagination is both a remedy and an ally during good and bad times. Oh, I hope that all children find the privilege and opportunity, even during difficult times in their young lives, to escape into the world of imagination. And while families feel the drudgery of our current times: exhausted parents struggling to wear so many hats –teacher, provider, playmate – in the midst of financial worries, is there a way to deliberately continue to feed imaginations? One day on a bike ride through a park, two young children asked me if I’d like to see a “gymnastic and dance” performance. Although work beckoned me back to my computer, what else could I utter but an enthusiastic, “Yes!” On walks I was quick to notice, although playgrounds were taped off as a potential haven for germs, kids chased and explored in the open spaces abutting the vacant play structures. Lucky kids to have access to wide open space in nature.
Late last spring the American Psychological Association put out an article, The Serious Business of Play. This piece might merely remind us what we already know deep in our hearts: that unstructured play is a fundamental necessity for children to thrive. Although I wasn’t a kid during a pandemic, I am certain imaginative free play did help me through my own childhood challenges of my parents’ separation, twice in two years being a new kid in school, and my dad’s unexpected job loss. I might go a step further and hypothesize that memories shared between people in an epic serious business of play can do a lot to bring us in our adult years back to substantial memories of carefree and imaginative moments, therapeutic during difficult times.
Our mom was an early childhood educator who believed children need the freedom to be creative on their own. I have only recently understood what a gift she gave us kids in allowing us this time to pretend, imagine and create. She went back to work part-time shortly before my youngest brother entered kindergarten, making some of us part-time latch key kids well before today’s accepted age. That being said, she also was a most active parent enhancing our lives with undefined opportunities. Like most of the kids around us during those 1960s and 1970s, most of our time was not scheduled, other than school. (I stopped taking piano lessons the year the only piano teacher she knew in Wilsonville retired.) Other than what felt like an inordinate number of emergency room visits, we survived childhood mostly intact. My memories of childhood include one long reel of days of unstructured play, some of it solitary as I escaped my brothers. One summer I decided I would be an orphan, a strange notion likely influenced by my heavy literary diet chocked full of unrealistic romantic notions of kids living in challenging environments (Blue Willow, Oliver Twist, Strawberry Girl, Box Car Children). Certainly, in our often chaotic home it didn’t sound so bad to be alone in the world as I dressed up in a brother’s discarded sweater and stocking cap, adding water to an old fashioned bathing pitcher and bowl to wash up in the morning. I often pretended I was a boy, at the time thinking male-hood to be the better gender. Other days when it was stormy outside, I invited my younger siblings to “build” their houseboat (blankets lying end to end with “dock” space between), bringing “onboard” our essentials and stuffed animal companions, as we adventured our waterway, evading eels and crocodiles.
But the imaginative glory I’m reminiscing about today is our family’s epic multi-generational adventure. Memories we still recite, share between ourselves and generations: a shared never-to-forget experience. Yesterday I watched the video that still captures our family’s Long Beach Peninsula pirate treasure hunt. Our nieces will share memories of this experience long after my brothers and I are gone, just as we treasure our memories of our dad’s participation that day. Even Mom, late into dementia, is reminded of the event as I read about it in My Music Man, or as we viewed the video yesterday.
What about you? Did you once have an adventure seeming so fanciful at the time that even now its crumbs pop to the surface of your consciousness, inviting you to remember? Or perhaps an experience you shared with someone else, encouraging you to whisper out …remember that? What about using the now to create something new? Pull in those little ones in your life if you have them –kids, grandkids, neighbors– or simply another willing adult, and encourage them to grow a fanciful idea, small enough to concoct in a bedroom or over Zoom, or large enough to expand into a neighborhood or nearby woods. All we need is an open mind and an expansive, willing imagination. Just imagine what we might craft, even if for a few minutes, to carry us through difficult times and forever into the future?