The other day I had off from my teaching duties, so I found myself in the nearby city of La Ceiba running errands and buying groceries during the morning hours while all of our kids were at home in classes with the rest of our teachers.
On a whim, I pulled our old white pickup truck to a stop in front of a phenomenal new two-story resale shop that is quickly becoming famous in our area for its incredible deals.
Although we do not normally purchase toys for our children for several reasons (they have not been prone to taking care of the few toys that they have received, plus we do not want them to think that they have to have some kind of advanced or electronic toy in order to be happy), on this particular occasion I bounded up the long winding ramp to the second story to investigate the toy section.
A new idea had occurred to me: get a variety of versatile, oldschool-style toys and then store them all in one or two big Tupperware bins. You take them all out to play creatively for an hour or two, and then you put it all back in the bin when you’re done. Bingo!
As the majority of the members of our household are quickly leaving behind childhood and boldly entering adolescence, I’ve recently felt it urgent and necessary to create safe moments of childlike play – to protect moments of pure fun, of boundless imagination — for our kids before all sense of childhood soon gets lost. (A very respected friend of ours also recently called me a slave driver due to the amount of responsibility we are daily inculcating in our kids through their extensive musical practices, household chore expectations, homework load, etc, so I’m trying to learn to ease off a bit on the ‘duties’ and increase the ‘fun’…)
And so I perused the long, wearhouse-like rows and dug deep through dozens of stuffed animals and old plastic and wooden toys, finding incredible bargains on puppets, silly stuffed animals, an enormous purple plastic egg, a variety of outrageous hats and costume parts, and bits and pieces of old toys that probably no one else would think to purchase. A long vacuum-cleaner tube; stacking shelves meant for kitchen use; little foam cubes. My shopping cart’s contents resembled the leaning tower of Pisa as I headed for the checkout with a big grin on my face.
That evening, as our 12-year-old daughter Gleny helped me take the price tags off everything and stuff it all in two bright green containers I had purchased, we decided to have a night of creative play as a family instead of our traditional Friday-night movie.
With each family member wearing some kind of silly hat — Darwin with a bright green baseball hat on sideways, two of our teenage girls wearing french barrettes, Gleny wearing a dog hat with long, floppy ears and Gaby sporting a tall top hat that came straight from Alice in Wonderland — we spread out in our cozy living room to play together. A couple of our kids were absorbed in an intense chess match while several of the littler ones played gleefully with the new array of secondhand toys I had brought home. Darwin and I with our older teens played Cranium on our tile floor as each person tried on several different wild hats throughout the process.
The next day our 12-year-old Gleny was prepping for her weekly tutoring session with little Gabriela. Several of our kids in addition to Darwin and our teachers are working with Gaby right now as she is in the beginning stages of learning how to read. Gleny grabbed the little syllable book to read with Gaby when a thought occurred to me: “Gleny! Better yet, instead of reading with Gaby, play with her.”
Ever since we met Gleny as an explosive, affectionate 9-year-old in 2013 she has been a master at creative play. Given very few tools she can create a very elaborate drama with this and that character, a princess to be rescued, a mansion made of legos, etc. I remember the day special-needs Josue moved in as an insecure 6-year-old in 2015, Gleny immediately had him sitting down on a small stool in our living room with a makeshift stethoscope around his neck as he tended to her daughter, a sick stuffed animal bunny. She has been known to organize an entire army out of her siblings and lead them valiantly as they all run around the yard with sticks and ‘bows and arrows,’ creating forts and shelters under different bushes. She has a beautiful imagination, and now that she is on the cusp of entering adolescence, much of that has been lost — or neglected — lately. Now that she wears a training bra and is in our advanced math class with her older sisters, I suspect she has tried to hide that very childlike aspect of her personality in order to fit in with her more mature peers. Just the night prior she had exhibited great enthusiasm with me as she discovered and helped take the price tags off of the quirky new toys, but once the chance came to play with them, she kept her distance and chose rather to join in the older kids with the chess match.
And so, when I suggested to her that her tutoring be that of play rather than one more reading session, her eyes lit up mischievously. Because, after all, she would be the ‘teacher,’ so no one could say that it wasn’t cool for her to be playing with the toys. I smiled big and said, “Gleny, you have a phenomenal imagination, and Gaby — and Josue — both need a lot of help developing their creativity. You can take the new bins out, and simply play with them. You would be great at that.”
She jumped up immediately, grabbed the two big bins and called her young students to join her on our front porch as she quickly began guiding them in the delicate art of creative play. Each person with a hat; each person with a stuffed animal. Let the creative play commence.
Peeking out through the slats in our windows as the minutes drew nearer to an hour, my heart grew with joy as I saw our future teacher Gleny exercising radiantly one of the gifts the Lord has given her. I grabbed our little digital camera and snapped a few photos while hoping not to distract from the whole play process…
Amen! Glory to God!