“What is it you’re doing?” Sophia asked.
“I’m playing,” Grandmother said.
From The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
While reading a novel, do you ever stumble upon a shard of dialogue that completely blows your mind? That’s what happened to me as I read the conversation above; it was like tripping over a rock partially buried in the sand. Whoa! What’s this? The grandma is the one playing?
The thing is, in our mad dash up Mount Maturity we often neglect to bring along our inner child. If it has been a while since you’ve felt that special joy of getting lost in exploring, messing around or just being ridiculously silly, well, perhaps you’ve forgotten how to play. The good news is that we can be adults and playsters extraordinaire at the same time. In fact, play just might be a critical component in developing and maintaining our personal happiness.
Through a series of entirely random lessons, my grandson, r , who recently turned two, is patiently trying to show me the ropes of play that I’ve forgotten, and the amazing thing is I just might be starting to remember.
Lesson 1: Playing With Water and Naming the World
“Gooma come,” r says, taking my hand and leading me out to the backyard one morning.
“Where are we going, r?” I ask.
“Pway water,” he tells me, heading for the hose.
For the next hour, as r names every noun, verb and adjective in our fenced-in world, we fill and empty his blue bucket, and also the watering can that’s twice as wide as r; we water the wilted hostas, the Russian sage, the grass; we wash our feet, our hands, two balls and a hula hoop; we take drinks, top-off the bird bath, accidentally squirt each other and a squirrel in the face, and completely lose track of time until we’re close to convulsing from giggles and the cold. In short, we play.
Lesson 2: Picking Up Stuff and Spin Dancing
Later, after lunch and a wee nap, we head to Cornwall Park for a meander, and I decide to watch my tiny play-guru carefully, to make some mental notes so I won’t forget what he’s teaching me.
Right off the bat, I notice how r stops in the middle of the trail, picks up a large rock, announces “Rock!” and carries it in his hands as we slug along. He looks at it closely, rubs it against his mouth (he used to try to eat the world but now a mini mouth rub will suffice), smells it, does a bit of a spin-dance singing “Rock, rock, heaby, rock!” and then tosses it in into the bush when he sees a long stick.
Lesson 3: A Stick and a Shadow
r, I observe, does not mourn the loss of his rock. When he’s done with it he’s done. To r, each new object offers exciting play possibilities. After all, the world is his playground. He finds the stick under its huge cedar mother. It is three or four times r’s height, a fact that does not deter him from dragging it out onto the trail. With effort, r scrapes the stick back and forth through the trail’s gravel in a wide arc. He hoists it up into the air over his head like a massive wand and does a spin-dance, or maybe a spin-wobble, nearly scraping me in the process.
“Gentle, r,” I advise, leaping out of the way. “That stick has a sharp end, dude.”
“Dude. Sharp end, hurt,” r acknowledges, and at the same time he sees his shadow on the ground. He stops, still as a squirrel on a fence, and slips into a deep shadow-meditation. r’s eyes glaze over like he has just discovered the Great Mystery. Time ceases. Is he even breathing? I’m not.
“Shadow, r,” I name it for him, trying to break the spell. But he says nothing back until a moment or two later when a sleek runner and her golden lab zip past. r drops his stick, shouts, “PUPPPY DOOOOG!” and lunges after them like he’s just discovered his pack.
Lesson 4: Caspar Babypants and the Blue Angels
Caspar Babypants is the magma of musical madness for those happy playsters who love to jump and spin, which is exactly what, I notice, r is doing now. Me too, and I’m really into it, almost dizzy enough to pass out, in fact, when I see my baby guru zigzagging his way out of the crowd and toward the street. Has r actually not had enough frenzy and wants more? The kid is as fast as a Red Radio Flyer wagon headed down Southwest Charleston Street, and I’m about to lose him. On the other hand, this grandma has lungs to die for. I take a deep breath, inhaling nearly half a cloud of air, and scream louder than the “Run, Baby Run” coming out of Caspar’s supersonic wonder amps, “rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!!!” which stops the tiny tyke dead in his tracks. So dead, he lays down right there on the sidewalk and stares up into the sky where a flock of five Blue Angels just happens to be jetting by.
“Gooma down, tired,” r says sweetly, inviting me to join him on the concrete for a well-deserved rest after so much Caspar Babypants and Stompy the Bear. I sit beside him. Yawning, and stomping his green runners on a manhole cover, he reaches for my hand and then, smiling, r teaches me how to count. “Airplanes, one, two, one two. Brrrrrrm, brrrrrrm, brrrrrrm.”