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.
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.