Before my kids could walk, they would pull themselves up, gripping with one hand the metal track in the “Ramps” exhibit at the Boston Children’s Museum and with the other a golf ball. They would reach as high as they could, drop the ball on the ramp, and watch it circle round and round as it made its way down the track to floor below, all the while flapping their arms in delight. When they could talk, they asked me to lift them up so that they could drop the ball from the very top of the track. They would do it over and over, until I dragged them to some other gallery in the museum. I think they could have stayed there for hours if I could have ever remembered to bring a book.
I know all of the ed school speak that, for children, “play is work.” And that if children are engaged for an hour then it means that they are still learning something, still trying to figure it all out, still surprised enough by the outcome for it to be engaging. If that’s true, then maybe I should have pushed through my boredom to let them stay put with the golf balls. They were engaged in meaningful work.
But isn’t it possible that balls are just fun? Like Tom & Jerry and Ezra’s fart jokes. (OK – those are not fun for me, but the boys can’t get enough of ’em.) Does Maria Montesorri’s statement, “Play is the child’s work,” apply to all play? Isn’t a cigar ever just a cigar?
Today, I watched Zach and Ezra in the “Ramps” gallery for perhaps the 40th time. And they were every bit as engaged as they were five years ago. Every bit. And I don’t think it was because they were learning something new about gravity, or friction, or speed, or acceleration. I think I would have had to call their attention to those aspects of the exhibit for them to learn anything. I would have had to ask them questions that were in their “zone of proximal development.” (This is where, if I knew anything about computers or blogs, I would put in a link so you could go read about Vygotsky and his zone. But I don’t, so you’ll have to Google it.)
But I was too tired to ask them any good questions, and I’m pretty sure they would not have appreciated my efforts. So I watched them climb to the top of the ramp, drop the golf balls, jump down, and flap their hands like they did when they were toddlers.
It seemed to me that they were enjoying it the way some people enjoy the ballet or a beautiful painting or a rushing stream. Or the way some people enjoy dancing or painting or canoeing. Or the way the boys enjoy it when their lizard catches and eats a cricket. Or when they ride their bike around the block over and over and over. Some things are just fun.
And sometimes a ball is just a ball.