A snowy Saturday morning left the grass and trees covered with plenty of the white stuff. The ground was still too warm for any snow to stick to the roads, and by Sunday it was all melting. I browsed through late autumn landscapes to choose one for my digital art display. After a while, I settled on this image of a brook with colorful autumn trees in the background.

Photo of brook with autumn trees in background.

(Photo credit: Jim Lukach)

My younger selves in the imaginary village of Channelwood approved of the choice, or mostly so. Seven-year-old Ponch had put on a warm coat over her dress instead of her usual poncho (no doubt begrudgingly). The coat’s weight and thickness did not deter her from skipping across a narrow ford where flat-topped stones spanned the brook.

“That water is cold,” warned twelve-year-old Sara, sitting on a blanket in the grass, as she glanced up from the needlework in her lap. A marshland scene in progress, with very realistic cattails, decorated a large square pillow. “You wouldn’t like it if you fell in, would you?”

“Mother hen, cluck, cluck,” retorted Ponch, flapping her arms rudely. She lost her balance for a moment and teetered precariously above the brook before making her way across.

On the near bank, my five-year-old Peter Pan alter ego, wearing a favorite green jacket, was building a fort out of twigs and moss. A formation of smaller twigs with yellow leaves looked ready to launch a pebble from a catapult, while the defenders stood behind a palisade with brown leaves for their uniforms.

Sara turned toward me. “Did you come here to play?”

I thought about it and realized I didn’t have a good answer. “Well, maybe. I just happened to show up here, and I’m not really sure what I want to do.”

“That’s the trouble with being grown up,” Sara told me sympathetically, as she took another neat stitch. “You get so used to doing everything on a schedule that you forget what it’s like going out to play.”

I meant to dispute that point, but before I had my thoughts clear on what to say, I went off to do some household chores. After that, I was busy for much of the day. Monday morning showed up before I knew it, and by the time I got back to composing this post it was Wednesday afternoon.

“Well, okay, it’s true that schedules can get in the way,” I had to admit. “But I certainly haven’t forgotten what it’s like to get outdoors and be active. I go rowing with my husband most days when the weather permits, and we also run road races like the Turkey Trot.”

“That’s not the same as going out to play.” Sara gazed toward the other side of the brook, where Ponch had sketched a hopscotch grid in the dirt with a sharp stick and was tossing a pebble into it.

“When children go out to play,” she continued, “it’s a free-flowing adventure, in which they never know what they’ll discover. They may expect to play tag or marbles, but then they decide to join in when they see someone playing hopscotch or soldiers. They don’t feel obligated to keep on with it for very long, either.”

On my left, Peter already had abandoned the little fort and was sprawled comfortably in the grass, about to doze off.

“And that’s another difference,” Sara observed, following my gaze. “A child feels perfectly free to lie down for a nap when the need arises. If the pretend battle never happens, there’s always something else to do later.”

I tried to remember the last time I’d taken a nap on an ordinary day when I wasn’t recovering from an illness, and I came up blank.

“Of course, what I’m doing right now is different from going out to play, too.” Sara put down the pillow and reached into her yarn bag, taking out various brown and green hues, which she inspected with a careful eye. “I may discover something unexpected, such as that a turtle has decided it wants to peep out from among the cattails. But when I start adding the turtle into the picture, I’m committing myself to finish it, unless I decide to rip those stitches out entirely.”

She chose a muddy green and threaded her needle.

“Arts and crafts are also good for a healthy mind and soul, but they are more structured than play. The mind has to be given time for playful wandering, without need to reach a goal, so that it feels safe enough to let creative thoughts come out for a romp whenever they’re so inclined.”

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