The Maplewood Canal

Have you ever had an experience so uncannily coincidental it seemed to affirm everything you’ve been doing with your life till now? When you get that unexpected answer from the universe after years of begging questions… I had a moment like that today. To say I feel tickled would be both apt and understated.

Story goes, I’d been asked by a neighbor to watch her two girls for a couple hours in the afternoon. I picked them both up and walked them back to my apartment, just a few grassy knolls away. As soon as we stepped inside, the youngest asked if she could watch TV. While I’m not against television entirely, I thought we should see what could be made of the beautiful weather and the playground that is literally ten paces outside my front door (I didn’t pick this apartment so much as it seems to have picked me). Without demanding it, I simply asked the girls if they wanted to play out on the playground and they both eagerly agreed. I grabbed my skateboard just in case they were curious. Part of me said, no, that’s dangerous they’ll get hurt! while another part of me reasoned, you’re here to watch them and can handle any accidents. I’m glad the latter part won out because it was right. Much of what I’ve been reading in literature on play suggests that some risk is essential for growth and learning. I’ve been a firm believer in the small-risks method of play since I was very young. Having been through the scrapes, cuts and tumbles myself, I can confidently say they made me more aware of my own body, abilities and surroundings. If you have seen a playworker in action or read anything about “adventure playgrounds” you’ll know that these small risks are an everyday part of the playground experience. A playworker gives children the space to play on their own and take small risks, but is there to respond quickly in the event of an accident. Having learned a little bit about this play style, I took on the responsibility of an improvisational playworker. I earned my fair share of scrapes and bruises from skateboarding in the past, and knew it was highly likely they’d get a little banged up, but were unlikely to get severely injured, especially if they were just scooting around on fairly level sidewalk.

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I started by showing them how to push it around. Once they got the hang of that I showed them how to sit or lie down on it and propel it with their feet. They enjoyed these weird skating methods, but they knew better. “Show us how to skate for real!” they demanded.

“Alright, this is how I do it.” I didn’t have to take it far at all for them to be impressed. The youngest was completely awestruck by my simple feat and spent hours trying to perfect her skating skills. “How do you stand on it?” she asked. “With two feet,” I said. “How do you make it move?” was the next obvious question, to which I replied, “Take one foot off and push the ground with it.” She was a natural! I never expected her to take any more interest in that thing other than to kick it around the sidewalk, but she was gliding like a pro in no time.image

So did they get hurt? Sure! But nothing more than a scrape, and possibly a bruise or two. I was as proud as any father would be with how they handled it too. The youngest scraped her forearm a little on the sandpaper surface while she and her sister were tugging on it in opposite directions. I could tell by the look in her eyes she was preparing for a full-on tantrum, so I simply asked her to show me her arm. No blood, just tiny white scrapes. I rubbed the area with my hand to soothe the burn and said, “Looks great! You’re a tough kid!” The tantrum in her eyes was nowhere to be found. She cracked a big smile and went right back to boarding. The highlight for me of her first run of skateboarding was when she kicked the fin to lift the board, grabbed the trucks and tucked the skateboard under her arm – like a real boarder! I didn’t even show her how to do that! She’s going to break some skater boys’ hearts in high school, I just know it.

imageWhile the youngest was preoccupied with scooting around on the board, her sister and I started digging in the sandy storm-drain area nearby the playground. For a while now I’ve been observing a trend where the $10,000 worth of play equipment on the playground gets used for 15 minutes out of every day, while the practically FREE pit of sand and gravel gets used for hour-long stretches at a time (or more!). This sends a pretty powerful, and clear message – one I hope to explore in future posts. The eldest and I started digging with our hands, but quickly realized this would be an arduous task if done for too long. I ran inside and grabbed three garden trowels to make quick work of our dig venture. We made all kinds of shapes with the moist sand we gathered from underneath the surface. All the while asking each other what this part was supposed to be or what we should add next. Her mind went immediately to a wall-village, in which all the inhabitants lived inside parts of the wall. “This part is the school for making money!” “This is the playground!” “This is the garden, so we need to add flowers!” and add flowers we did as her mother showed up.

Now this could have easily been the moment where a more worrisome mother might’ve had a fit at my letting the girls get all dirty playing in the sand or riding around on a skateboard. Instead, she was shocked at how happy her kids looked. The youngest immediately called her mother’s attention, showing her how she could move around on the skateboard with one foot. Her mother’s eyes widened, and I waited for her to tell her to be careful or to stop. Instead, she looked right back at me and explained why this was amazing. Evidently, the youngest had great trouble learning to walk not so long ago, and to see her moving confidently around on a skateboard was nothing short of a miracle. Apparently all she needed was a little inspiration, space and freedom to make short work of miracles.

Mom was equally impressed with the wall-town the oldest and I were diligently at work on. It’s not everyday she gets to see an adult and child making fun shapes and imaginary universes in the sand, though I do hope this changes. I explained that wetter sand holds together better, which makes shaping it easier. With mom now at hand, and with her interest thoroughly peaked, we got the go-ahead to add water to the mix! The youngest even stopped skateboarding to join us for this next part.

We used a water spigot on the side of a nearby apartment to fill a big orange plastic bowl full of water. First, mom dumped a bowlful into a small canal she and the youngest had dug with their trowels. We watched it travel down the canal and into a deep pocket, where it slowly sank into the ground below. When it emptied, they added another big bowlful. After a few sideways glances, they got the idea to expand their invention, and so began their great Maplewood Canal Project!

What isn’t pictured here is how intricate their work became! At its peak they had constructed a high pool for pouring in fresh water. It would run from this high pool down a channel, hook right, then hook left and descend quickly where it would hook left again and cascade into a huge pit. Once the pit filled up, the water would spill over into another channel where it traveled down an underground tunnel we dug earlier in the day which exited out into the terminal pool. At various points, the children added stone roofs atop the channel as decoration. While working, they found a spaceship-shaped piece of wood and used it as a boat in their canal.

In the end, what was intended to be a short hour and a half watching the neighbor’s kids turned into a five hour long romp in the sand and sun. We all learned a lot and, more importantly, we had a bunch of fun! Their mom looked so proud of her girls, and they looked pretty pleased with themselves too. After all, they accomplished a lot! I can only imagine how this kind of experience on a regular basis would help them grow into bright, confident teenagers. I look forward to our next adventure together, and I wonder too, how well we accommodate the play-needs of teens. More on that in a future post.


“This is the real secret of life — to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.”

–Alan Watts


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