The Simplest Things

. August 10, 2012.

One of the stories nearly every parent can tell is of a child displaying a preference for the box a fancy holiday or birthday toy came in, rather than the toy itself. Parents may have braved long lines on Black Friday or navigated the World Wide Web’s dizzying display of options to acquire that special doohickey, but a simple piece of colored cardboard proves a more commanding attention-getter.

It’s no surprise that kids gravitate towards simple things. Their imaginations are running at full speed. Unfortunately, too many of our modern contraptions for learning and playing take away a big part of what learning and playing are supposed to provide for children—the opportunity to wonder and imagine.

Just the other day, for instance, Dee had settled in after breakfast for some morning play time. Sitting against one wall was a shelf full of toys—and two full boxes of toys were across the room. Instead, Dee decided to play with two paper towels that hadn’t been needed to clean up after her morning cereal. She carefully rolled one paper towel and declared that it was a “trunk.”  She then informed me that it should be held at the end of my nose, and should be accompanied by the bellowing of an elephant.  A second paper towel she rolled into an even tighter cylinder, and this one became a “straw,” from which her dad-elephant could drink an imaginatively delicious beverage.

Dee recently acquired her second magic wand – this one, an upgrade from a simple star-on-stick, featuring tassels and sparkly jewels.  We sometimes bring one of these wands on a walk through the neighborhood, but she’ll usually make me carry it before we get halfway down the block, to keep her hands free to pick up sticks which she uses to cast more powerful spells (and which we find tucked away in her socks a few hours later when it’s time for a bath.)

High in the sky

The family came along with me on a recent work trip to Texas, and we got to spend a few days in Galveston, on the Gulf of Mexico.  With the shift to Central Time, Dee’s early morning wake-ups came even earlier, and, with her little brother and parents sharing a hotel room for the vacation, Dee and I would sneak out for breakfast to  try to give her brother the chance to sleep. One morning, we took three kites, that Dee’s auntie had given her, across the street from the hotel to the beach.  I opened up the kites and let Dee decide which one to fly first.  The Blue Angels quickly took the sky.  She then asked me to help her fly the second kite, the Space Shuttle.

As we were flying our reusable space vehicle, I spotted another father and daughter out enjoying the morning sun.  The dad was riding a bicycle along the bike path, overlooking the famous century-old Galveston Sea Wall.  The bike path was about 15 feet above the beach on which we were playing. His daughter, a few years older than Dee, was driving alongside in a bright pink plastic SUV, the size of a riding lawn mower, apparently powered by an electric motor.  This distracted driver looked our way and became entranced with our simple diamond-shaped kites.  She took her eyes off the path, and started exclaiming to her dad, “Look, Dad, kites!”  As she did so, she apparently turned the wheel of her vehicle towards the 15-foot drop.  My heart jumped up into my throat, but thankfully, at the last second, her dad noticed her impending misadventure and managed to get her attention — and the pink SUV — back on the path.

The kites we were flying had taken me minutes to assemble and probably cost less than $10 each.  The pink SUV, that  had almost caused a regrettable incident, probably cost forty times that and no doubt includes an instruction manual longer than most college textbooks.
Even our simple kites, though, proved to be less interesting to Dee than something simpler.  She asked me to put together the third kite, a bird, but that one was a bit more challenging to assemble, taking me a bit longer. Dee lost interest in flying kites, and instead took up a two-foot long plastic kite pole and used it to draw lines, circles and clouds on the sandy beach.

Geoffrey Rapp is a law professor at the University of Toledo and the father of a toddler, “Dee,” and an infant, “Ricky.”