We went to a Broadway play, a big splurge, Cats. The kids got to stay up late, they had a great time, we had a pretty good time answering their questions for the 2 1/2 hours of the show. "What's his name, Daddy?" "Why is he doing that?" "Why did she do that?" "Who's that big gray cat and why is he moving so slow?"
These are good questions, and it was certainly a mind-expanding trip for them. And us, too, I suppose, if you yearn for the job of simultaneous translator. But the real show was performed for two weeks after that, in the family room. Our junior thespians performed nonstop from the time they hit the door home from school to bedtime, when I carried them off, protesting, shrieking lustily for "just one more curtain call!"
The point is, they were learning what they had seen. They were internalizing the show, making it their own, transforming it in ways that made sense to them. I'm convinced that's how children learn - by role-playing, acting it out, possessing it, whatever it is.
And what did they use for props? Everything - our clothes, our household implements, our books - and with an uncanny sense, I might add, for using the precise article we needed at the time. But that's another, old story.
Once I cottoned to their methods, I began to give them things, things that I had grown tired of, things that I no longer needed, things that had begun to fill up my desk. I got a warm, Zen-like glow of non-attachment to take to work with me, and the kids actually began to look forward to my coming home, taking bets on "what Daddy would dump next."
And what use they have made of these things! Rulers have become lasers and light swords. Tie pins (and it was high time to dump those) have become magic rings. Hole punches developed an entirely original form of "holistic art," also Zen-like, which employs the hole, or emptiness, to create an image, or something marvelous.
An extra magnifying glass led to a whole week of Sherlock Holmes, especially once a reasonable facsimile of a deerstalker hat was provided by the mad parental hatter. An old typewriter not only typed amazing stories, but also became the control panel of a warp-10 space ship. Klingons, beware!
The kids are enchanted with these things, these everyday objects that have a parental aura around them, because they are things that parents really use. An older, but still serviceable notebook made a great hit, and acquired a new life as Professors E. and S. brought their classes to order and proceeded to instruct them in the mysteries of something I couldn't begin to comprehend, but that they understood perfectly well. It may have been highly particularized physics.
I'll admit to a qualm when a tie I had grown tired of became the means to lower Robin Hood safely out of the tower prison the Sheriff of Nottingham had
put him in, but I'm sure the tie itself glowed in the knowledge. After all, I'd just left it to gather dust on the rack, no doubt a form of torture for that self-respecting bit of silk finery.
I believe that children learn best this way, acting out their school days and the other events and activities that seem important. They control the agenda, instead of being controlled, and they learn cooperation with their friends and siblings. Their creativity grows. And they learn to value the essential wonder that is in everyday things.
Your children will put that wonder back into your daily objects if you let them. You'll clear off your desk and bureau a little. You'll save time and money at the toy store. And you'll learn as I did that the best use for a pad of Post-it notes may just be the blindfolds that all good pirates use when they make their victims walk the plank. So don't give your kids toys. Give them things they can play with.