Friday, 12 August 2016

Putting Away Childish Things – Ruth Hatfield

Ok, I know there are certain traits you probably shouldn’t carry from childhood into adulthood with you, like the tendency to throw yourself on the floor and howl when someone asks you not to pull a chair onto your head. But does there really come a time when you have to put away your toys and ‘grow up’?

I’m not sure. Putting away your toys doesn’t necessarily mean you become a grown up: it seems to me more a sign that you’ve closed down your thinking and decided that you know how things are, and that the time for experimentation and play has passed.

My nearly one-year-old daughter is doing something new. I say ‘new’ – it’s been done by every single baby since babies began. But she has discovered it for herself, and it’s got me thinking about the usefulness of ‘childish’ things. She’s learnt the words ‘hat’, ‘cat’, and ‘tractor’, and she’s begun trying to figure out what they are. Hats go on people’s heads. Cats are alive. Tractors have wheels. Which means, logically, that if you put a book on your head, it must be a hat. If a man walks towards you, he must be a cat. If the vacuum cleaner has wheels, it must be a tractor, and so on.

She’s a baby, so I get it – there’s a whole lot of context she just doesn’t understand yet. But it also makes me play with silly ideas. What if that vacuum cleaner hoovered up potatoes? What if that man really is a cat, in disguise? What if everyone used their favourite books as hats and walked around wearing them, and you saw someone wearing a book you loved or hated?

What if we lived in some bestselling dystopia, where wearing books was the law…?

Endless questions. Mostly inane (apart from the last one, that’s my next novel). But I like toying with silly ideas and I always have, since I was a child. At the heart of it is both a desire to remove myself from the everyday, and a desire to understand what the everyday is, in relation to all the other things that it could be but isn’t. I suppose this isn’t a particularly childish desire, but it manifests itself in childish ways – I wish I could still play those endless games of ‘pretend’ that I acted out with friends in the playground at primary school, and which required no work, no polish and no finesse, just endless streams of new ideas.

Baby At Play With Very Hungry Caterpillar Hat
My daughter also empties a box, puts it on her own head, and tells herself it’s a hat. In time, I’m sure the box will become a car, then a pirate ship, then a moon rocket.  One of the best things I did at the Charney Manor retreat this summer was Helen Larder’s excellent workshop on the lawn – a group of grown-ups playing kids’ games (trying to steal ‘treasure’ while capturing members of the opposite team was a great one) and having a riotously brilliant time.

Again I wonder – why is the act of physically playing something that we grown-ups reserve for special, organised situations? Why don’t we do it more? It would make writing so much easier. When I was a child I wrote my stories everywhere – in cars juddering along tiny lost roads, trailing up hills swishing sticks, playing those endless games of ‘pretend’. Now I sit at a table with a pen in my hand. Mentally, it works. But physically, it isn’t exciting.

I know that there are inevitable consequences of growing up. The luxury that I had as a child to trail along behind my parents on a walk imagining families of mice living in the dry stone walls was only available to me because somebody else was reading the map and making my sandwiches. But it seems a shame that alongside the adult’s increase in responsibility also comes the adoption of a more ‘adult’ persona, sometimes against our better desires. Those childish things we loved made us into the creative adults we are – why should we ever feel we have to put them away?

Of course adults do play – actors certainly do – but very often under somebody else’s direction, or in an organised group. How many adults still play with Lego, acting out all the lives they’ll never get to live? Reading a book is basically creative play, but it’s still someone else’s world, delivered to you. Writing a book is creative play, and it’s entirely your own world, but sometimes even the act of writing gives creativity a purpose that I’m not sure it always needs. 

Maybe there is a time for putting away childish things. But I think there’s also a time to consider taking them out again, and just seeing what happens.


JO said...

Years ago I led an experiential workshop for foster careers on the importance of play. One of the dads insisted it was irrelevant for him as his ten-year-old was too old for playing. Then we got out the clay, and he had a wonderfully messy, creative time - and still didn't make the connection between the fun he had and the child he was caring for. Oh well, I tried!

Susan Price said...

That's a great shame, Jo. And Ruth - maybe you've hit on the next big thing after colouring-in books? Charge adults money to play silly games.
A friend of mine told me that the most brilliantly happy times he could remember were when he played 'Robin Hood' with his young daughter in the woods. Creeping around in the scrub, trying to ambush each other, leaping out onto a path with a cry of, 'Have at you, Varlet!' Even when he accidentally ambushed another adult, out walking their dog, he stopped being embarrassed because he was enjoying himself so much. And, of course, his daughter loved it. - But then, he was a musician, so already pretty daft.

Joan Lennon said...

I am wearing a cat on my head, which I doff in appreciation - thanks for this, Ruth!

Ruth Hatfield said...

Susan - that's a genius idea! But they would have to be completely unstructured games in order to fit the bill. Perhaps I'd absent myself with a gin to make sure I wasn't ruining the potential for spontaneity...

Sue Bursztynski said...

Well, I'm a member of science fiction fandom and we certainly play! Costuming, acting out skits, running around, and yes, Lego... One time at a convention, I saw a lady smiling at a young boy holding a teddy bear. "And what's its name?" she asked kindly. "Oh, this?" he replied."It's for the teddy-bear throwing contest." The look on her face was hilarious; she was a publisher, there to support one of her authors, not a fan. Adults play Dungeons and Dragons in groups, pretending to be heroes on a quest, on the table game board. I got at least one story out of that. Adults join the SCA and other re-enactment societies. I have an SCA coat of arms and name. You spend entire afternoons calling each other, "My lord ... My lady.." and pretending to be mediaeval aristocrats(but you have to earn actual knighthood). If that's not playing, what is? :-)

Susan Price said...

Sounds like fun - but I don't think I'd be able to owd up a loffin. That is, I would be laughing too hard to stand up.