Something from Nothing
Everyone knows that Charlotte loves small animals, and consequently she has two large containers of small plastic creatures. They contain dozens of cats and kittens, every sort of puppy, an assortment of jungle animals, birds, and even insects. She loves them, and plays with them often. Making an addition to her animal collection is an easy way to please to this three-and-a- half-year-old.
But Charlotte is also delighted to enter into a game of Itsy Bitsy Spider, using only an imaginary creature, and when I hold out an empty hand and say, “Look, I think that spider is back,” Charlotte will ask if she can hold him. Cupping her hand, she will coo over the spider and then go and find a home for him. Often she will inquire about the whereabouts of the spider’s mother and father, and I have to dig into my pockets and appear to find these additional family members so that she can tenderly carry them away to be reunited with the baby spider. It’s clear that these imaginary creatures are no less satisfactory than the real ones.
When she comes to stay with us on the island, Charlotte is happy to spend hours on the beach throwing stones into the water, constructing villages out of shells and rocks, and creating a little playhouse in the spaces between a few logs. Watching Charlotte in these pursuits, I remember that as a little girl I loved to play house under the trees in a neighbour’s back yard, using branches as brooms and creating living spaces out of whatever we could gather from the outdoors. I recall how thrilled I was when my mother showed me that teacups could be made out of acorns, removing the lid to be used as a saucer and using the remainder as a cup. She told me how, as a child, she and her sister would make and play with corn husk dolls. She also did something very clever with the bleeding-heart flowers that grew wild in the back lane, but I can’t remember now what that was, only the magic of what she did.
Children delight in creating entertainment from whatever raw materials are at hand. They like a challenge, like making something from nothing. Of course, they can also use their imagination when they play with plastic animals or shiny new educational toys and games. But it looks to me like the imagination has more free play when it is not limited by the thinking of the psychologists who design stimulating learning experiences for children. My husband has frequently told me about the delight he’d had as a child in a wooden boat that was simply made from a block of yellow cedar. To this day he gets misty-eyed when he smells a piece of yellow cedar. The aromatic quality of the wood is something that was never captured by Fisher Price.
He also recently mentioned that he will never forget his first gun. Now, I disapprove of children playing with guns and military weapons, but when he held out his hand, thumb cocked and two fingers pointing outwards, I got his point. And I remembered how absorbed I was in playing shadow animals, needing only one’s own hand and a bright light in front of a blank wall, or using my hands to create a whole story about a church, a steeple and all the people inside.
My niece recently had a very successful party for her three-year- old daughter where the focus of activity was a large cardboard box which had recently held a new fridge. Darcy had cut a door and windows in the box, and all Marin’s friends were invited to bring coloured pens or decorations which could festoon her new playhouse. Not only did this creative recycling initiative make a happy party but it also provided hours of cheerful play for Marin and her brother for more than a year afterwards.
Cardboard boxes are great. They can be planes, trains, automobiles, or private little houses where a child can hide or store things. They’re safe, and they’re free – although as I write that I realize that someone has probably marketed a version of the cardboard box in which all the accessories are provided and no thinking at all is required from the child! But children like to use their imaginations, as Robert Louis Stevenson described so well in A Child’s Garden of Verses:
We built a ship upon the stairs
All made of the back-bedroom chairs,
And filled it full of soft pillows
To go a-sailing on the billows.
We took a saw and several nails,
And water in the nursery pails;
And Tom said, “Let us also take
An apple and a slice of cake;” —
Which was enough for Tom and me
To go a-sailing on, till tea.
Chairs, pillows, boxes, and a kid or two, are enough to create a whole new world. Sometimes it takes no more than fingers and toes. Charlotte’s father, Alex, tells me that when they were traveling by ferry the other day, he and Charlotte were engaged in a game of Daddy Finger and Baby Finger in which the cafeteria tray served as a house. The Baby Finger was making use of an imaginary kitchen, stove and fridge, and was preparing a meal for the Finger Family. When Alex asked what kind of food was being cooked, Charlotte brightly responded that it was Finger Food. Of course! But what he really wanted to let me know was that there were a couple of kids at a nearby table who were watching with some bemusement as the Finger Family played their games, and as Charlotte and family were leaving the cafeteria Alex noted that these kids had set aside their plastic toys and game boys in order to clear the table for their own finger fun.
Does creativity catch on that easily? Probably not. But one way to find out would be for grandparents like me to resist the endless marketing of junk toys, including those that purport to be educational, and to find better ways to help our grandchildren play and learn. I admit that I’ve made a significant contribution to Charlotte’s large jars of plastic animals, but I’m not doing it anymore. It will do me good to figure out what I can bring to her that will not be harmful to the environment, not be made by child labourers in developing countries, and that will not dampen but rather support her naturally lively imagination.
Matthews, C. Something from Nothing. Relational Child and Youth Care Practice Volume 19 Number 1, pages 35-36