Last weekend we visited Vandalia, Illinois, where I was raised. My old house is no longer there, but the memories remain. As we drove down eighth street, my mind drifted to summer evenings playing Kick the Can in the street. Some of my neighborhood friends from the 50s were at the all-class reunion, another reminder of childhood games in our yards and along the stream by the Scout house nearby.
I saw a very small child of five or six operating a lemonade stand in the front yard with a patient father sitting next to her, knowing she might be young for this business. But he didn’t tell her she was too young. He sat with her and did business. I remember the railroaders that would stop at my lemonade stand to buy a glass of lemonade or Koolaid for a nickel, more to encourage than for the quality of the beverage I would guess.
My dad sold lawn mowers, so we had dozens of big boxes to throw out each week. My lemonade stand was a modified 36” riding mower box. We built mazes and forts out of the large cardboard boxes before they met their fate in the ash pit (long before box recycling was considered). Richard Louv chronicles the power of building forts and hideouts for children in his book, Last Child in the Woods. Creativity is alive and well when kids have a chance to invent, fantasize and collaborate in the outdoors.
Some nature centers and parks are creating playscapes that engage a child’s imagination and they vary in size, theme and objectives. Cleveland Metroparks has a great playground with mastodon bones protruding from the sand and playspace. It’s a chance for kids to play paleonotologist. Austin Nature Center in Texas has a similar play area that allows kids to sweep the sand away to discover fossils that stay permanently embedded. These are interesting thematic play structures that I think would appeal to most kids.
A Canadian park along the St. Lawrence Seaway opposite New York State has a playground with a rowboat kids can sit in and play out there own adventure on the water on a padded pond with adult supervision. They also have a cabin with several levels and most of the walls missing, allowing some imaginary adventures.
But my favorites are not in my photos. They are the ones that kids pull from their imaginations. They are made of leaves, compacted snow, and discarded boxes. I am not around kids much these days. Do they still build these. I hope so. They are special because they are limited only by the child’s imagination.
Some very innovative programs are just setting aside areas in the woods and along streams where kids can still play. Wading, flipping rocks, floating stick boats and crawdad watching will always be an adventure for a child out in nature. Our electronic devices imagine games, worlds and intrigue of varied kinds. I can understand a kid being interested in these high voltage games. But the planet is still an organic place where kids can discover themselves as they imagine the fort they are building.
As we drove by the Town Branch in Vandalia, I told Lisa about the wide spot in the stream that used to freeze and we played hockey with sticks we found and any sort of puck we could create from natural debris. She reminded me she has heard this story a dozen times before. These memories carry with us through life and the creative choices we make in our work started in the woods, out in the yard and playing in a stream. We need to keep facilitating these opportunities before everything fun in nature has a sign restricting the imagination of youngsters.