It is interesting to me how life has a way of rendering simple things into complicated things, and complicated things into simple things. In the category of seemingly simple things, I put toys. From the Free Dictionary, the definition of toy includes the following: “a small ornament,” “a bauble,” “to trifle,” “to treat something casually and without seriousness.” Yet, toys have a way of becoming complicated—they can become laden with ideas and emotions, they can excite, they can enrage, they can intrude. As a result, toys are often singled out by moms as something in need of simplification, leading to articles with titles like “Why I Took My Kids’ Toys Away” and “Why It’s Time to Throw Out All the Toys.”
While I like getting rid of things as much as the next Konmari-worshipping mom and admire those who can get by with Waldorf-style simplicity, getting rid of all the toys would definitely not work well for my family. Toys have recently become a serious interest of my five-year-old son, sometimes crowding out, though not replacing, his favorite “academic” interest: science. He plays with them, sure, but he also studies them. He collects information about them—pores over catalogs he cannot yet read but nonetheless understands. Though I worry about the commercialism and the global and environmental implications of too many toys (and we no doubt have too many, despite my best efforts), I have been aiming to treat them seriously and respectfully when I can, because I want to treat my kid’s interests seriously and respectfully. I want to remember that if play is the child’s work, toys are the child’s tools.
Even if play wasn’t work, I’d be a fan of playing—that is, I don’t want to make toys into a serious School Subject—but I’ve also noticed some other cool things that my son does with toys. For one, he uses them to compose—scenes, videos, stories. I have recently become completely enamored of Julie Bogart’s Brave Writer, an amazing homeschool writing program that recommends teaching writing by catching young children in the act of composing (aka talking excitedly about something) and by jotting down their ideas. I have been doing this since fall and nearly all of the compositions that my son and I have written have been about toys. At our recent homeschool co-op “share fair,” he chose to show a complicated Lego Star Wars ship that he put together himself (it was impressive, especially for a five-year-old!) along with a composition describing its features in careful detail. He has also recently started creating his own videos about his toys, which he thoughtfully plans and edits by doing multiple takes. As I tell myself when I worry about handwriting, et al., this IS writing for a five-year-old. I love the creative, unusual, and surreal tableau that emerge.
My son also uses toys to communicate, to make connections. He breathlessly compares data with other kids: “Do you know about Star Wars? Ninjago? Nexo Knights?” (Lego is popular here). His favorite plea as of late is “Momma [or Daddy], tell me about something you liked when you were little.” And we tell him about all of the toys and shows that we took delight in as a child (and have come to critique as an adult for being too consumerist, but we don’t tell him that part): Thunder Cats, Care Bears, My Little Pony, G.I. Joe, Transformers, Glow Friends. I even tell him about the terrible ones that I would really try to avoid letting him watch if they were on now, like the blatantly toy-promoting and narrative-bereft Potato Head Kids. Then, we play “being” different characters that we each “liked when we were little.” And we bond. We have surprisingly deep conversations. It is fun, and wonderful, and fosters the sweet family culture I want for our homeschool. And it’s also educational, by the way, since he’s learning about toy history, something that has nicely coincided with the Heinz History Center’s recent toy exhibit and with a cool vintage toy store find on our trip to Columbus, OH. History, after all, is all about connections—the history of G.I. Joe alone is the history of all the American wars since the Cold War.
On the other side of the coin, life—or perhaps in this case, homeschool life—has a way of making complicated things simple. To my mind, there is nothing more likely to be designated as complicated than poetry. Unlike “toy,” poetry doesn’t even have a simple definition, and the best definitions are poetic, like Percy Bysshe Shelley’s claim that “Poetry is a sword of lightning, ever unsheathed, which consumes the scabbard that would contain it” (come to think of it, this sounds exactly like the kind of toy my son would like!). Poetry is ever in need of that “poetry consciousness” that lets one read a line with both thinking and feeling brain, simultaneously trying to understand it and letting it be. I teach poetry sometimes at the college level and this is a tough thing for my students to do. Many people either don’t enjoy it or try very, very hard to uncrack what they think is a hidden, elusive meaning, inevitably pushing them away from what is on the page.
And yet, and I must entirely credit Julie Bogart here, poetry has become a simple delight of our homeschool. Julie points out the wonderful truth that poetry is best presented to children over tea and treats, as a “Poetry Tea Time.” She recommends keeping it simple; the treats can be store bought if necessary, and all can be as casual (or as fancy) as one desires. You read whatever poems you want, without fanfare or interpretation or instruction. The children also pick poems to read or have read to them (the non-readers can use the accompanying pictures in many children’s poetry books to choose their poems, creating a feeling of participation and ownership). The idea is that children become comfortable with poetry and start to imbibe some of its structures and ways of operating, without that intense effort that can render it uncomfortable and unpoetic.
We have been doing poetry teas since winter and my son loves this! He has developed a particular affinity for the Victorian poet, Edward Lear, who is the author of the only poem I ever memorized as a child (“There was an Old Man with a Beard”) and of our new favorites, “The Scroobious Pip,” “The Two Bachelors,” and “The Nutcracker and the Sugar Tongs.” It’s the most fun watching my son act out the nonsensical “Teapots and Quails” and ask excitedly for more poems. And I must say that this is a really enjoyable interest to cultivate as a family—we have collected a modest number of poetry books (a few from an awesome children’s book store we found in Columbus, OH), we have explored tea houses with friends, and we have big plans to try teas and desserts from all over the world. Our first foray in this direction, as you can see in the photo above, included making Persian sequin candy. The possibilities, as they say, are endless.
One highlight of our most recent tea house excursion is that we found a tea whose name was poetry in itself: “Naughtea.” This epitomizes the complexity that can be held in simplicity. I think Lear would have approved.