It’s always an unexpected joy for my husband and me when we are in a position of secret observation of a child engaged in imaginative play; not in a creepy, voyeuristic way, I promise. It’s not like we go hiding behind hedges, peeking our eyes over the top in search of children we can spy on. It’s those natural moments of pure thoughtful childhood freedom that we are honored to observe; those moments when a child is playing, fully engaged in an imaginative world where there are no boundaries or rules or obligation.
…like when we were children and played with no limitations or expectations that our time of fun was finite.
It’s almost like this child at play is a conduit for healing, like a shot of antibiotic fighting the disease of the hazy, heavy life that adults have chosen to wear like a badge of honor, proving to ourselves that we are hard at work, earning the eventual right to a vacation—the “right” to a moment to return to our innate need for abandoned play, if you will. It’s a funny cycle we’ve created for ourselves; play with all our hearts as kids, then grow up and stop playing so we can work hard to earn money for some time away so we can forget our obligations for awhile so we can return for a moment to “play” without worry or stress.
We were created to enJOY life.
Remember any childhood games you used to play? I remember as a 3rd grader, my friend Erin and I would ride our bikes down the street to a house that had a driveway with two entrances connected by a half circle driveway. We would ride in through the entrance and out through the exit, making invisible designs on the pavement while we rode. The driveway was curved, which was just perfect to represent the curved back of a squirrel. We’d make the arched back design, then ride out into the street, ride in a 360 degree formation to make the head, then continue to the middle of the street to “draw” the paws. We’d fake vote whose design was the best, then we’d start all over again with a different drawing that required an arch in it so that the driveway was constantly useful to us.
Now I ride my bike to the store, or to accompany one of my cross country team on a fast run. I haven’t drawn a street squirrel in almost 40 years.
Watching children play without the timid, guarded actions of a person that has been judged for their silliness one too many times, or the restraints of adult responsibility that stifles us is a reminder of that for which we were intended to experience and feel and enjoy, regardless of our age.
Why do we prescribe to this boxed in way of thinking as we age? Why do we allow history to dictate that imagination and playtime only exist within the confines of childhood? Why does it become “immature” to build a sandcastle or run through a field trying to get our homemade kites to catch flight? Remember making kites out of old newspapers and sticks? Remember tying colorful hair ribbons onto the tail?
Why has it become our nature to become the opposite of what is natural and encoded within us?
But, alas, we do prescribe to this mentality. We do wake up one day, deciding that we are no longer at an age where we can imagine ourselves as lords and ladies in a castle with a moat full of alligators surrounding us, waiting for the imminent strike of the opposing army, only to be rescued by the gallant knight. Instead, we become servants to our jobs, swimming with the sharks, chained to our need to pay the bills and, of course, saving for a vacation where we can escape the monotony of our repetitive days that are not typically defined as FUN. The need for financial security is a necessity, no doubt. I’m not denying this for even a moment. We have to earn a living. We have to support our families. I just don’t think we have to do this at the cost of our pure and unadulterated happiness. Why do we have to throw our childlike joy to the wind, trading our youthful whimsy for pennies? Keep the whimsy; keep the pennies. It’s not a one or the other choice that has to be made. If fact, I would argue that the more joy you are creating, feeling, and expressing, the more pennies you have the potential to make. Joyful people are productive people. Productive people earn some piles of pennies.
Why can’t our work and play be in harmony? Why can’t we maintain our childhood joy and still take care of our adult needs and the needs of our families? Why must we be tainted by “maturity” as society has dictated? Maturity should continue to connote wisdom, but why must it conjure boredom and frustration for ourselves and those we have emotional access to?
Which brings me to Preston.
From the second story balcony of our vacation rental in Cozumel this past week, Jeff and I got to experience this free, imaginative play hour after hour from a beautiful little boy named Preston. We barely wanted to leave our balcony to explore the island because of the front row seats we had to the joyful theater on the sand before us. We judged his age to be perhaps 10ish, and he was not only a lover of Batman and Superman, as his clothing dictated day after day, but upon our continual observation, we learned that he frequently assumed the role of Superhero himself. Super Preston built fortresses out of sand, directing laser guns and cannons outward from the center to ensure the complete protection of the inhabitants (we think they were sand fleas and ants primarily, maybe a few little crabs, too). Preston collected fallen coconuts from the beach and placed them strategically around the entrance to the sand city so that bad guys couldn’t pass. He sat as still as a statue for minutes at a time, observing birds that were perched in the palm trees to assess if they were a threat—he decided that the black birds were the enemy but that the pelicans were sentries that could also provide food service by delivering fish to Sand City when there was a food shortage. And then Super Preston noticed that the iguanas were infiltrating his city from beneath the…
“PRESTON!” Mom shouted from the porch below our balcony. We couldn’t see her face but we knew what it looked like from the frustration in her voice and the sharp way her tone lowered in the second syllable of his name.
Preston didn’t answer. He was directing the laser pointers toward the sidewalk under which the iguanas were tunneling toward his city. Super Preston began to build a rock wall of coco….
“PRESTON! I have called you three times! Quit ignoring me!” Mom said.
Preston looked up. “Sorry Mom. I was just building a…”
“Honey, why are you doing that so close to the stairs into the condo? You’re going to drag sand everywhere inside. Can you move a little further down toward the water next time? We don’t want to have to clean up the mess before heading to relax at dinner.” Mom smiled sweetly and absently patted his head.
“Oh, don’t worry, Mom!” Preston beamed. “I’ll clean it all up before we leave. I just have to secure the fortress and the people will be safe from harm while I’m away. Wanna see the laser beams that are set up on each corner of the city?”
“That’s cute, Preston, honey. I don’t have time to come see right now, everyone is ready to head out to dinner, but maybe tomorrow I’ll sit and play with you for a sec, okay?”
“Sure.” Preston stands up and walks up the steps toward his condo, careful to brush the sand off away from the city. “I don’t want to create a sandstorm in the city,” he says. Jeff and I almost fall over the ledge while craning to soak in as much of Preston’s joy as there was to be had as he walked under our balcony and out of view. I sat down carefully and gently, not sure what I was feeling completely. I looked at Jeff without saying anything and knew he was feeling the same as me.
Preston is a boy. He is a bundle of skin and muscle and bones and hair and toenails that have dirt under them. He is resilient and fantastically energetic. This one interrupted event didn’t rob him of his childhood. This one round of play that ended abruptly didn’t disrupt his ego; his SUPERego, if you will. He will play again, probably within the hour. His mind is his own. His imagination is a cohort. Together they are Super Preston.
But Jeff and I aren’t children. We don’t often release ourselves of inhibitions and play in the sand together. We looked at one another. We both felt sad. We felt sad that Preston maybe had to grow up just a little bit in that moment, and that it was essentially a step toward learning adulthood rules that don’t include playing. We felt sad that our own vicarious playtime that we were experiencing through Preston had been sabotaged. We were sad because we were both reminiscing about our own 16 year-old boy, who was at that moment sitting out on the beach in a chaise lounge checking out girls that were walking by instead of being the incredibly awesome Sand City-building Super Ben, though we smiled through our sadness because we knew at any moment he would jump up and try to climb a coconut tree just to see if he could get to the top because staring at girls all day is dumb when there are coconut trees daring to taunt his athletic ability directly above him.
And it must be said that this one small moment of interrupted imagination of course did not undo all the Texan close family awesomeness that we had been observing throughout the week from our balcony perch. This was a tight-knit family, with many more extended family showing up throughout the week. By the time we were packing our bags on day ten of our trip, there were three condos in a row inhabited by this big family that seemed to be, indeed, populating the entire state of Texas themselves with their family tree. Preston got to play with cousins galore, one of which brought his own Sand City building expertise and architectural genius. That was one very glorious and invigorating play session for Super Preston. No iguanas or black angry birds or preoccupied moms infiltrated the city that afternoon! Grandpa even got in on the Sand City action for a good 15 minutes before he felt the pull of the surf and the tequila being poured by someone’s brother by marriage two porches down.
Jeff and I spent some time talking about Preston’s mom too. What journey did she take that brought her to the place that in that moment she cared more about not having a mess on the condo steps that directing her attention to what Super Preston’s laser pointers were protecting millions of Sand City residents from? When did her imagination and whimsy leave the party? What experiences has she had that this time in Cozumel with her family contained baggage that shadowed childhood imagination and respect for the pure, innovative thinking of her boy? I’m not declaring that she is a bad mother or that she emotionally abused her kid because she made a comment about messy sand and didn’t sit down for a minute to play, I’m just saying that I wish Mom could have felt for a moment the joy that Super Preston was putting out into his little superhero universe and embrace it as fuel for her own engine and antibiotic medicine for her tired soul. Maybe in the giving of her time to him for just a moment, she could have traveled inside the walls of Sand City herself and left behind her internal walls that she had built around her own playful imagination.
No matter where we are with our kids, adventure exists. We, as adults, needs to take a momentary step back and visualize the experience not from urr old person glasses, but from the glasses that we wore before we needed glasses—the filter of imagination and pure joy that makes coconuts look like cannonballs and branches from trees look like laser guns. We need to provide not just vacations from “adulthood” for ourselves when we are traveling, but we need to provide the opportunity for our children to express their vision of the world in their own beautiful and creative way; and perhaps we can learn to return to this utopia because of their teachings—a utopia that exists regardless of our location or destination and a utopia that we don’t have to just occasionally visit.