Living in this World

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

#101 Home-made play

I had offered to do child care for a group of mostly childless young adults,
and it turned out that there was just one five year old boy--and no toys.
So we went to the kitchen--to give the grown-ups as much space as possible
to do their business in peace and quiet--and looked for something to do. He
found the recycling bin under the kitchen table and began exploring its
contents: an egg carton, a yoghurt container, a tuna fish can, one of those
little plastic cups that sauces and dressings for fast food come in, its
lid, and the foil of a candy wrapper.

We settled in on the floor and started by building towers, trying different
arrangements with the containers, and noticing what was the same and what
was different. I discovered that if we opened the egg carton a little and
put it on end, we could make a tall building. He checked out the foil,
announcing that it had been milk chocolate. Though I had never considered
that you could smell the difference in chocolates, as I sniffed I had to
agree. Noticing the strength of the smell, he speculated that it had been
blueberry--one of his favorite foods.

He began making meteorites from the foil, and it was surprising to see how
they shook the tower, but didn’t knock it down. Then the meteorites
transformed into a lumpy monster, putting an (imaginary) passerby in danger.
But the monster bumped into the leg of the table, and we discovered that it
was because the light hurt his eyes and he had to close them when he walked.
He tried again, got bumped again, and died. This monster, whom I had grown
fond of as his vulnerabilities became apparent, transformed into another
monster, this time with a long saber and a distinct head that looked up and
down. Then it grew a tail and transformed into a dinosaur. A tiny bit of
foil that I had put in the little lid on the top of the building became a
dinosaur egg, and the lid became a nest. The dinosaur, which changed fluidly
from ankylosaurus to tyrannosaurus rex, showed an amazing ability to leap
over tall buildings. Several times our tower got knocked down, but luckily
I was able to rebuild it each time.

We had been happily engaged together for about an hour, and had by no means
exhausted the possibilities of this play, when his mom came to find us in
the kitchen and take him home to bed. So we disassembled the tower and put
all the recyclables back in the bin, except for the foil, which was turning
into another dinosaur in his busy hands--way too valuable a plaything to be

I found this short time together on the kitchen floor both totally enjoyable
and vastly reassuring. We had nothing that could remotely resemble a toy,
much less anything that required external power or involved a screen. Yet
what we had was enough. That a 21st century child from the United States
could create such rich and flexible play from these homely ingredients was
enormously hopeful. It was a sign: that the initiative and creativity of
the next generation have not been permanently stunted by our society’s
addiction to consumption, and that it’s possible to downsize without
sacrificing life’s essential pleasures.

Some things that have made me hopeful recently:

The growing network of connections between local farms and food-serving
institutions like schools and hospitals.

The widespread outcry over the cheering at the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Successes in the grassroots effort to integrate a marginal ethnic group in
Rwanda, the Twa, into the life of the larger society.

The increasing number of religious people and institutions that are raising
their voices in a religious/ethical critique of our economic model, and its
impact on people and the environment.

Check out:, a home for all the parenting
writing I've done over the past 20 years.

Also: START: a way to study and work together with
others to create a better world.

For earlier columns, go to
(If the background is too dark to read, I hope you can get a computer whiz
to help--and let me know what you figured out! When I go there on my Mac
via Safari, it's fine.)

And I've joined Facebook! We'll see if I can use it as a communications
tool and not get sucked into all the rest...