When I drive around I see many “boughten” play houses, free-standing, with painted wood, perfect joints and safe ladders. Gone are the partly-finished, ticky-tacky tree houses nailed to a clump of poplars that were once constructed and played in (“we have a clubhouse!”). Gene Logsdon, the Contrary Farmer, says “at the age when children like to have a playhouse or any small place to hide in or feel secure in, corn shocks in my father’s fields were the perfect answer. They looked like tepees. We could push aside the stalks and hollow out a room inside.” Later, his own kids spent hours in a similar “playhouse that cost me nothing” (Simple Homemade Toys).
Virtually everyone I know who has a house and yard could have enough space – perhaps in a flowerbed or dedicated part of the lawn – to grow a few sweet corn plants, eat the ears and save the stalks to allow children to design their own cornstalk clubhouses. For those living in suburban apartments, a drive to a neighbouring vegetable farm could yield some stalks if you ask politely. And those of us with bigger properties could invite those from the centre-city to visit and cut some stalks to make a shock of cornstalks on the balcony: a sort of sukkah such as you might see on Jewish balconies in Brooklyn that help celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles.
Leaps and jumps
We recently had a family reunion. Our grandchildren were looking forward to riding the quad and the Kubota tractor. Their favourite activities were swimming in the weedy pond from our Frog Boat (a small rowboat), catching Western Toad-lettes – one female may lay 16,500 eggs and they all seemed to hatch this year – and jumping into loose hay from a stack of small square bales.
Small square bales are those 50-lb. bundles of packed and tied dried grass that farmers used to make for winter fodder. Large squares and round bales of hay or haylage are de rigeur nowdays and I personally think that silage- and hay-making equipment are some of the best gifts to farmers that God provided through inventive humans. But large squares and round bales don’t provide a soft landing point for child-launched leaps.
So on our farm, our neighbour cuts and bales most of the fields. I reserve a couple tiny fields, which I cut with an old Massey 35 tractor and sickle-bar mower. A kind friend who still owns a small-baler makes 30 or so of these neat packages, which we pile up as a tower in an empty hay barn. Then I cut another field, rake it up when dry and give the grandchildren one of the best toys in the whole world: a pitchfork. Well, maybe the opportunity to help load an old pickup trailer is the best “toy.” Certainly it is a gift devoutly to be wished.
Our grandchildren worked with glee (note: the photo doesn’t show sweat or itching). And then they jumped, cavorted, buried themselves and itched some more when they jumped from the square bales into the loose hay – a commodity that is almost impossible to find these days of big squares and round bales.
Here’s my suggestion: find time to help children with what Grandma used to call “making your own fun.” If you have a farm, find time to be less efficient and to spend more time working with children in a way that blurs the work/play distinction. And invite others to join you.
If this whole business of playing and working in hay sounds much too romanticized (though sweat and itching aren’t very romantic) and something only to be accomplished in a rural setting, you could also help your children find a tree. Or make a bridge over a rivulet.
Or sit on a fallen tree that spans a creek in a public park.
If Marie Antoinette had quipped, “Let them eat hay,” she might still be alive.
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