What a flaming tennis ball taught me about nurturing imagination 

Growing up, my family’s idea of a good time extended beyond dunking various body parts into clay. In fact, there was no shortage of creative shenanigans whenever we got together with our cousins. And we got away with a lot of it, as my mom and dad weren’t exactly helicopter parents.

In part, that’s because giving us a long leash was just their parenting style. But I’m sure the bigger reason was that they had eight kids running around like a bunch of maniacs, and you’d need a whole fleet of helicopters to keep track of us.

Raising a ridiculous number of children also comes with a hefty price tag in terms of groceries and other essentials. As such, we typically couldn’t afford to be involved in organized activities like hockey or Boy Scouts. And because we grew up in an area where cows outnumbered people, we didn’t have the luxuries of malls, movie theatres or other urban distractions to occupy our time. 

So we learned early on how to entertain ourselves. Sometimes that meant innocent-enough activities like going for a bike ride or swimming at Grandma’s beach on Lake Huron. Other times, our boredom-busting tactics were a tad more … idiotic.

For example, the street we grew up on was a gravel road. And to get to the Death Cliffs, Nicholas and I would often walk along that road with our cousins Jonathan and Adam, who lived next door. To keep ourselves entertained, we came up with a very clever game — a real thinking man’s game, if you ask me.

The rules are pretty complex, so try to keep up. Step one: grab a handful of gravel. Step two: hurl said gravel into the air. Step three: close your eyes and brace yourself as rocks rain down from the heavens. 

Sometimes you’d luck out with just a small pebble bouncing off your shoulder. Other times a big rock would crack you on the top of your skull.

There were no real winners in the game of Gravel Head. Just varying degrees of losers.

Another incidence of stupidity really stands out. It was a warm summer day, and we four dummies were once again brainstorming ways to occupy our afternoon. The winning suggestion? Setting things on fire in Jonathan and Adam’s backyard.

To start, we doused a large piece of plywood with gas, set it ablaze and dared each other to run across it. Then we kicked things up a notch, lighting up a soccer ball and hotfooting it up and down the lawn. 

But the scorched feather in our cap had to be our short-lived game of fireball-baseball. After drowning a green tennis ball in gasoline, our pitcher Adam ignited it and picked it up with a pair of barbeque tongs. Turning to Jonathan, who stood ready with his trusty aluminum bat, Adam lobbed the fireball to him.

Jonathan was quite the little athlete.

WHACK!

We all gaped in buffoonish delight as the flaming tennis ball sailed through the air like a mini-meteor. However, dread quickly replaced that delight as the trajectory of Jonathan’s well-struck fireball became clear. 

Why we thought it was a good idea to have the batter face the house remains a mystery. A combination of youthful inexperience and too much gas fumes, I suspect. Whatever the reason, the fiery missile not only made it across the yard, but it flew directly into Aunt Maureen and Uncle Ed’s house through the back door we had foolishly left open.

After a quick, collective scream of panic, the four of us sprinted toward the house to keep it from burning to the ground. Thanks to some ridiculous luck, the one-in-a-million shot did no damage, as the fireball must have extinguished just before flying inside. We put the jerrycan of gas away anyway, agreeing that it might be best not to tempt our good fortune.

Involving children in structured activities like hockey, art camp or swimming lessons is great. It teaches valuable life skills and is an awesome way to make friends. But if we cram a schedule too tightly with pre-packaged sources of fun, we leave little room for kids to exercise their own imaginations. 

Sure, our experiences with flaming tennis balls and scalp-splitting gravel may not be the best case for leaving kids to their own devices. But growing up in an environment where the only recreational structure we had was “go play outside” and “be home by supper” did teach us to fend for ourselves. 

Furthermore, I think giving us the space to use our imaginations helped us nurture our creativity — which in turn helped develop problem-solving and critical-thinking skills (even if it sometimes put our health and homes at risk in the process). 

Those skills certainly came in handy later in life when cancer flipped my life upside down. For example, when a particular course of treatment wasn’t working, creative thinking allowed my doctors to quickly pivot and come up with innovative approaches to try. Meanwhile, with a little imagination, I was able to do things like put together healthy meals I could stomach after chemo and design a colour-coded system that helped me keep track of my medications and appointments.

I’m not saying you need to hand your kids a tennis ball, gas can and some matches to nurture their imagination. In fact, to be clear, please DO NOT hand your kids a tennis ball, gas can and some matches. 

But maybe scaling back on the number of organized activities wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. Don’t feel the need to occupy every waking moment of their days. Let them get bored from time to time. Let them turn to themselves for entertainment rather than constantly expecting it to be handed to them.

The skills they develop in the process will serve them well down the road. Because even the nastiest obstacle is no match for a powerful imagination.


Next: Chapter 10 — The frying pan: What towel-snapping taboos taught me about pushing your luck

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Did you know? This resource is also available as a print book called “Simply Blunderful: A cancer survivor’s illustrated guide to flaming tennis balls, camping catastrophes and the many obstacles life throws our way.” Click here to learn more and order your copy.

click on a chapter below

Chapter 1 — The coin flip: What a cancer diagnosis taught me about life exploding into a bazillion pieces

Chapter 2 — The slip-up: What a puddle of puke taught me about asking for help

Chapter 3 — The Great Burning: What a million paper monsters taught me about things going up in smoke

Chapter 4 — The crayon candle: What the lamest science project ever taught me about putting in the extra effort

Chapter 5 — The Christmas concert: What starring as a tree taught me about finding my voice

Chapter 6 — The “Super Something:” What blood and glue fumes taught me about vulnerability

Chapter 7 — The dare: What wearing a clay helmet taught me about bad habits

Chapter 8 — The cannonball: What Meghan in the mud taught me about letting go

Chapter 9 — The fireball: What a flaming tennis ball taught me about nurturing imagination

Chapter 10 — The frying pan: What towel-snapping taboos taught me about pushing your luck

Chapter 11 — The haybale: What a tough day in the barn taught me about having someone to watch your back

Chapter 12 — The babysitting gig: What banshee babies and buttered butts taught me about failing forward

Chapter 13 — The sledgehammer: What a construction job taught me about using the right tools

Chapter 14 — The cement truck: What a misguided act of heroism taught me about good intentions

Chapter 15 — The valet: What a parking disaster taught me about overconfidence

Chapter 16 — The growl: What a wolf in the woods taught me about knowledge and responsibility

Chapter 17 — The shortcut: What a hike through stinging nettles taught me about cutting corners

Chapter 18 — The backpack: What a giant duffel bag taught me about band-aid solutions

Chapter 19 — The big freeze: What camping in a snowstorm taught me about knowing when to quit

Chapter 20 — The snowy gauntlet: What an idiotic bet taught me about redefining success

Chapter 21 — The Christmas tree: What a holiday hunt taught me about overkill

Chapter 22 — The BB gun: What my dad getting shot in the eye taught me about owning up to our mistakes

Chapter 23 — The toboggan hill: What sledding battles taught me about approaching problems from different angles

Chapter 24 — The train: What a trip to the big city taught me about self-sabotage

Chapter 25 — The mushy cauliflower: What dinner in France taught me about the power of words

Chapter 26 — The shopping cart: What an unusual ride to the bar taught me about control

Chapter 27 — The butt clay: What a muddy gully battle taught me about karma

Chapter 28 — The president: What Bill Clinton getting in my way taught me about adaptability

Chapter 29 — The Taipei middle way: What a hostile hostel taught me about moderation

Chapter 30 — The refugee camp: What volunteering in Ghana taught me about digging deeper

Chapter 31 — The bus ride: What a long drive through the mountains taught me about patience

Chapter 32 — The barn: What a Christmas sleepover taught me about keeping your fires stoked

Chapter 33 — The list: What farts and sandwiches taught me about gratitude

Chapter 34 — The birthday: What a surprise celebration in the hospital taught me about self-care

Chapter 35 — The goodbye: What a man named Frank taught me about luck

Chapter 36 — The bloody transformation: What going from negative to positive taught me about change

Chapter 37 — The school of hard knocks: What life’s misadventures taught me about blunderful resilience