Robert Louis Stevenson’s wonderful verses often capture more than meets the eye.

When I was down beside the sea
A wooden spade they gave to me.
To dig the sandy shore.
A Child’s Garden of Verses

They – whoever ‘they’ were – clearly did this child a good turn. They brought him to a good place, and they gave him a good ‘toy’–if we call it a toy.

The best ‘play’ is a kind of first exercise in the deeper things of life: such as playing house, playing workman, or playing army. Or simply digging in the earth.

Children have a kind of natural fascination with many things, some of them good, some of them not. How they play, what they play and with whom they play will either grow or diminish these fascinations.

Current customs, particularly because of the technologies involved, can turn play into something less than it should be. Often, real play is replaced with entertainment. Real play might be entertaining, but it is not simply entertainment. Watching a screen, or even pushing buttons on a screen or board–though it be called a ‘game’–fall short of being real play. Such are not a first exercise or practice in real life.

Plato insisted that we must be attentive to what and how children play—indeed he thought it a key aspect of the formation of the young. Parents intuitively sense this. Yet our current technology-driven practices make it difficult to act on this intuition.

We can take a cue from the ‘they’ in the poem and give our children—or grandchildren, or any children we love—simple, age-appropriate ‘tools:’ such as a knife for whittling, good pencils and an attractive sketch book, a small hoe for the garden, or of course the ever-practical spade. Especially in the sand.

Yes, these might not immediately absorb or mesmerize the children. So these will demand a little more of us, calling for our closer presence and involvement. That might be a reason as a society we have let these slip away. It also points to the deeper gift of such ‘toys’ and such playing.

It is within our power at once to deepen relationships and cultivate children’s good natural inclinations. Summer recreation and summer vacation, as well as summer work, offer opportunity to minimize the technology, and to emphasize natural contexts for real play. They are often right at hand. Our children’s response might surprise us. And one day, they might thank us.

~ ~ ~

R.L Stevenson (1850-1894) is the great Scottish author of Treasure Island, Kidnapped, A Child’s Garden of Verses, and other classics. Image: Ruth Mary Hallock. (Note: this is a reworking of a post from a number of years ago.)

This week’s new video reflection, on the importance  on female friendships, below:


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