When I was a young child, a huge old willow tree toppled into our back yard from the neighbor’s yard behind us. It fell as the result of a hurricane that hit the East Coast in the 1950's.
The dense branches of the tree missed our house by mere inches. The entire back yard was a tangle of thick, green willow.
A jungle! Or so my brother and I shouted with delight. For weeks, (or maybe it was just days. Time is vague when viewed through childhood lenses), my brothers and I explored this sudden miracle.
We pushed through the thick branches, pretending to be Tarzan, always on the look out for lions, tigers, giant tarantulas and snakes. Hour after hour we lived this fantasy with no thought of watching television, eating, or stopping to rest.
Because we were children we spent not a moment worrying about this fallen tree clogging up the yard. That was an adult concern.
And this is the great gift of childhood. Being able to play happily in the moment.
Sometimes as adults we grow impatient with children who don’t seem to understand the seriousness of adulthood. For example, children almost universally enjoy jumping in piles of Autumn leaves, throwing the leaves about, oblivious to the hard work some adult did to make that leaf pile.
But I believe it is that obliviousness of childhood that makes it such a precious time. Without the worries of adult cares to weigh them down, children are free to open their minds and their hearts to the delights of imagination and play.
Yet even as I write this, I know there are many children in the world who are not allowed their peaceful play. Wars, poverty, ignorance and intolerance deprive millions of children of their right to childhood.
It is hard to imagine anything sadder than a child who is not allowed to play without fear.
I remember when I was working in a suburban library some years ago. As the library director, I made the decision to close the library mid-afternoon because of a rapidly developing snow storm.
After making the announcement on the loud speaker, I watched excited children and their families leaving the building to head home. But I also noticed a mother with three children who appeared confused and bewildered about what to do next.
Going up to speak with the mother, I learned that she and her family were living in a homeless shelter. The bus lines had closed because of the storm, and she didn’t know how to get back to the city and the shelter.
Although it was unorthodox, I offered the family a ride back to the shelter in my car. A ride that should have taken 20 minutes took us nearly 4 hours in the storm. As I glanced from time to time at the children in the back seat, I noticed that two of the younger children were very frightened about the snow.
My heart ached as I thought of all the fun a sudden snow storm could bring to my childhood. But to these homeless children snow brought only terror, not the pleasures of play.
Children need to play, not merely because it helps them develop cognitively and socially. Every child needs to play in order to know what it means to feel safe in the world.
Sometimes we are tempted to idealize the pleasures of childhood, to see it as the golden age . Yet no childhood, no matter how privileged or blessed, can be entirely free of tears.
So the next time we are in the company of children, let us send up a prayer of gratitude. Gratitude for the gift of witnessing the future through one of the greatest sights on earth: children safely absorbed in their play.