Why Antiques & "Dangerous" Junkyards Are Better Than Playgrounds
When I was majoring in neuroscience, one of the key ideas I learned is that variety controls attention, and attention (especially with association) engages memory.
To seek variety (especially within a place they've already been) can awaken their attention to differences and attention to detail, creating comparisons, associations, and memories.
If you take a child to the same playground over and over, despite weather changes, it's still the same playground. Sure, there are trees, but they are more likely landscaped and isolated. Sure, there's ground, but these days, it's rarely dirt or mud or sand or even grass; it's wood chips, cement, astroturf, or bouncy, pebbled rubber sheets.
Today we ventured on ground where the mud was so deep, your boots would sink in 3-4 inches. But we *really* wanted to see what was on the other side of the junkyard. So I picked up the baby, held C's hand, and we walked across a plank of an old birch boat most people would have thrown away. Definitely not something you'd do at a playground. But really, what's the danger? We fall in the mud? That actually sounds fun, too.
And there was that moment - we teetered. We tottered. And we all said, "WHOOOOAAAAAAA!" at the exact same time, and then we all laughed. We didn't fall in the mud, though. (We fell the other way into the snow.)
In some circumstances, playgrounds are a lifesaver - for urban kids, for kids living in inhospitable environments or unsafe neighborhoods. But it dawned on me the other day that when I was driving down a country road near our house and saw two little kids playing outside unsupervised, that it was the first time I've seen that since I was a kid myself.
I think well-educated, well-intentioned parents place too much importance on taking children to isolated, child-oriented, constructed environments like schools, playgrounds, play groups, and structured activities. These things have their place, yes. But not enough value is given to adults doing what they want or need to do, the work of the house and hobbies they enjoy. And if you stay home with children, you have to do some things that are fun for you, or you'll go crazy from the boredom of doing what they do all the time and end up over-intervening in your child's play, which hinders their confidence.
Not only will you keep from going crazy and getting in their way, but doing things you enjoy shows children who you are. It gives them the confidence and independence to develop their own interests as well. And staying out of their way as they get older and need less supervision gives them the time and space they need to cultivate interests and skill. One day they're going to turn around and look up to you to see who you are and where they came from, and if you've lost yourself in them, all they'll see is a mirror. And worse, they'll get the idea that life is all about them.
Maintain who you are, and continue to learn and grow and enjoy life with them beside you instead of in front of you. They'll hold your hand and see how you live in the world and love in the world despite it. And have fun! Because when you're having fun, so are they. (Well, usually.)
Some of my favorite childhood memories were not of activities done in the sensory rice table at school, but in digging my arm into a barrel of pinto beans at the farmer's market or through the big table of old buttons at the notions shop.
I love to take the children to places where the environment is rich with changes and opportunities for them to explore - outdoors, but also to antiques stores. In most places, people don't mind if your kids touch the items, as long as you make sure they're being gentle and you put things back. Many seem to enjoy having children around.
We went to one of my favorite places, the Fairfield Antiques Mall, because I love antiquing. It's an opportunity to comb through the past and cherry-pick the best parts to continue into the present. They have a coat rack, coffee, and cookies right when you walk in. It's a great time to go, because it's the time of year antiques dealers from the coast come to central Maine to stock up for summer tourists. So you can find both good selection and good prices.
Some of the same things were there from before, but every few months, many things are different. I can teach them in a hands-on way about how things work (hand crank tools), they learn new words, they play with toys from a century ago and see how children used to live and work and play. They learn about farm life (by seeing a child-size double-crank butter churn), about materials (this dollhouse is metal! Why is it not plastic?), about how milk used to be delivered, and how food used to be refrigerated. They learn about why the handles on the pans were sooooo long, and how laundry used to be done by hand (and that our machines do the same things - soap, agitate, rinse, wring, dry). We even saw an old magician's trunk and a very early washing machine. And of course, they love to race the little antique cars down the hallway upstairs.
Next door is an antiques treasure trove, but some might call it a junk yard. This place is magical. Now that the snow is thawing, you can see things again. And with a junk yard, kids can borrow things to play with. Last fall, they were really into the mason jars filled with rain water, and a set of homemade doll chairs and some random old mismatched spoons and old medicine bottles. They loved to clank the jars to make music and have tea parties.
Today they fonud this old board. I have no idea what it might be for, but my best guess is a theater prop (perhaps an airplane wing? Who knows). But to C, it was a snowboard, like the ones we saw at Sugarloaf a few weeks ago. He wanted to sit on it and sled down the hill. Well, of course, he couldn't do that with the small board attached in the back, so problem-solving skills came in.
History, mechanics, materials, language, food history, agricultural ed, problem-solving...maybe not as "safe," maybe not as expensive, and definitely requires more of your time, but rich in experience.