Something caught the ear of my oldest as he passed through the living room. His younger brothers and I were piled on the couch reading Roxaboxen by Alice McLerran, and he couldn’t help but linger and listen as the gentle prose pulled us all into the magical world of Roxaboxen.
Barbara Cooney’s darling illustrations put us right alongside the kids on that Arizona hillside as they built the town of Roxaboxen with nothing more than imagination and a few scavenged items. We flew across the plains with them, galloping at full speed on stick horses. We stood in line at the competing ice cream shops, eager to try every flavor. We gathered for town meetings and listened to the mayor’s latest proclamation.
As we turned the last page on their adventure, a subtle suggestion, an invitation, seemed to linger in the air: You can do this, too. Come out and play.
The invitation struck a chord with my oldest. I wasn’t surprised when he came to me later, a little hesitant but determined.
“Mom…I know it seems kind of like a little kid thing but I think it would be fun. I think we should invite some friends over and ‘do Roxaboxen.’ I have it all planned out in my head…”
The next thing I knew, our woods crackled with activity as my kids and a crew of adventure-ready friends worked to create a Midwest version of Roxaboxen. The “town” that slowly emerged boasted stick homes, acorn currency, old-tire furniture, and roadways lined with bricks and logs. Kids assumed the various roles of civic life; mail carrier, police officer, jailor, store owner, etc. My oldest, the visionary, served as the mayor, of course, and he kept the town functioning on a tight schedule as they moved from “market time” to “visit your neighbor time” to “court time,” etc.
It turned out that, for the older kids, the extensive brainstorming, planning, and constructing were the parts of the process they enjoyed most. The magic for them was in seeing the vision become reality, and, after a few sessions, the “official play” of Roxaboxen, with its assigned roles and scheduled activities, began to lose its luster. But this is where the younger kids discovered a fresh magic. One day, they built more buildings in the back corner. The next they established a hospital bursting with patients. And often the poor mail carrier was run ragged by the flurry of letters written between the residents of The Deer Path and those on Skelton Hill. The woods provided open space for the play to grow into new forms and tap into new fun.
Lessons Learned & Memories Made
It brings me great joy to see my kids playing outside together. Yes, I love to be out there with them when I can, but I think I enjoy it even more when I am working inside or in the garden and peals of laughter reach my ears or I catch a glimpse of them racing by.
From my hidden vantage point, I am able to observe the ways they problem solve, the ways they create, the ways they work together (or at least try to work together). In play like Roxaboxen, I see them engage in valuable lessons in leadership, civic life, engineering, economics, and biology without realizing they are doing anything other than simply having fun. In this kind of environment, where feet have room to run fast and free and imaginations are free to run wild, lessons sink deep and creativity soars high.
As I watch my kids run and build and create together, I am also mindful of the memories they are making, memories that will bind them to the land and to each other long after the days of exploring together are over.
Roxaboxen ends with an elderly woman, once a young Roxaboxenite, visiting that Arizona hill, still dotted with the remains of Main Street. As she takes it all in, she once again runs fast and free over the hills as her memories, thick and sweet, carry her back to those carefree days of fun in the sun.
My prayer is that as my kids grow up and move on they will take with them both the lessons learned through playful romps through the woods and also the memories they have made. I pray those lessons will take them far in life and that the memories will always bring them home.
Do you hear the invitation? Come, let’s get out and play!
Five Tips for Encouraging Creative Outdoor Play
1. Invite friends over to play in your outdoor space. Fresh eyes eager to
explore new terrain have a way of igniting excitement in all.
2. Say yes, whenever possible. Can we take camping chairs to the “kid
center” we are building? Can we pick wild flowers to sell at our woodland
store? Yes and yes!
3. Make outdoor space accessible. In urban settings that might mean going
to a park or clearing out a corner of the backyard. For us that meant
cutting a trail through the woods. Being able to access your outdoor space is key to being able to engage with it.
4. Name areas and landmarks in your area. Naming rocks, trails, trees, or
hills creates a sense of ownership and belonging, and it can be fun!
Anyone want to hike up Skeleton Hill?
5. Provide props or simple tools. Shovels, large wooden blocks, balls,
buckets, towels or colorful scarves….kids are able to devise all kinds of
creative games and imaginative play with a few simple items.
Featured photo by freepik