To Fathers Who Encourage Play

I’ve wanted to be like him my whole life, to fill the shoes I’ve since grown out of, and though we’ve both changed a lot, I still compare myself to him. It is a privilege to have a father in my life, a privilege I have shamefully taken for granted. Privilege is weird that way – a concept as much guiltful as it is enviable. But growing up with a father around does not complete the package of privilege I was born with. This best of men in my life set out to ensure I’d feel loved, to encourage my curiosity, to listen to my inane ramblings, to trust me (vigilantly) with fire and sharp objects and to mend me when I lost control of them, to let me wander even when that took me on whirlwind river runs that would’ve made Huck cackle and Pan crow.

Father and brother before a big adventure

Father and brother before a big adventure

Not only would my dad let me wander, he taught me to love it. A regular Sunday pastime of ours guaranteed soggy shoes, muddy knees, spiderweb masks, and fingers deeply buried in sand hunting for fossilized fortunes fallen from million-year-old mouths. We never did find the fabled Megalodon dentition we dreamed of, the holy grail for tooth trackers, but 1000 things as fun and a lifetime of love for the mysteries of nature – worth more than the most pristine jet fang. I owe him for cultivating the passions that drive me to explore farther and deeper, to reach for a dream and to appreciate those things I never expected to find.

Exploring misty mountaintops

Exploring misty mountaintops

We are very much alike in our differences. My father loves and knows more about the cosmos than I could ever hope to, while my eyes are set firmly on the terra before me. Yet, whether we’re staring up-and-out or down-and-in, it was my dad who taught me how to see. He taught me that the growing things have names, and in learning them I would have access to their secrets and gifts. He taught me that when I had questions without answers I could still reason my way to good ones. No surprise that I clung to science and the natural world, to naming trees and learning landscapes. The real surprise is how we made play of some serious business. Science is meticulous, methodical, complex, and infamously unforgiving of belief or myth – which may run counter to what many of us understand play to be. Superficially cold and unfeeling, it’s not hard to see the dark side of science. Looking deeper I think you’ll find true science to be an utterly human discipline, driven by curiosity, passion, love and caring – it is an attempt to understand the universe on its own terms – a suppression of ego and expectation – it is marveling at the unimaginable – it is playful, repetitive tinkering – it is dreaming and storytelling – it is hands-on, dirty, messy fun. My father understood the essence of good science and called it by its right name: play. Our journey through history, mysteries, muddy earth, swollen creeks, mossy trees, craggy mountains and winding country roads – began with the promise of play. There was the world and we would wonder at it in our own way – as a companion in our playful indulgence.

Confidence in climbing

Confidence in climbing to new heights

Some things we learned:

  • Pine needles, thrown with practice, make aerodynamically excellent darts, and scalps tempting targets.
  • Fire doesn’t keep mosquitoes away as well as we might wish, and its smoke hurts to breathe. It is awfully fun to scorch marshmallows in.
  • A good walking stick is hard to find, but worth holding onto. Sand clean and coat in flaxseed oil to keep it around longer. Give it a name.
  • Often, the best part of the trail is leaving it behind for a bit.
  • The root of a Turk’s Cap Lily is edible. Barely.
  • Some trees are better for climbing, others are for falling out of.
  • Black bears can bite through “unbreakable” bottles – and are especially determined after rummaging through the pack of spices.
  • Painful, frustrating, exhausting adventures are neither comfortable nor glamorous endeavors, though they make magnificent memories – which last an awful lot longer than their associated discomforts.
  • A game is only as good as the storytellers playing it.

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Miles of marsh

I’d have a difficult time itemizing all the things my father taught me. By now many of his lessons are so deeply internalized, I take them for granted and no longer recognize them as lessons I had to learn. With increasing frequency I find myself acting in ways that remind me of him – a laugh here, a reaction there, the way I explain new things to the unfamiliar. Much play is made of mimicking society and the people closest to us – and some twenty years or more later, I find myself revisiting those familiar plays and remembering how much they mean to me. We don’t forget the fun we’ve had – we integrate it into our being. And this may be the most valuable lesson yet, one that has taken me quite some time to learn: play becomes who we are. Play often, freely and young – and don’t let age slow you down – keep playing, keep discovering the richness of life we are all entitled to and which is available in abundance all around. My father never stopped, and neither shall I.

Here’s to you, dad! I love you, man. And cheers to all the other wonderful parents out there who are around to play with their kids. We need you.

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