I asked Holly what she planned to do after dinner, during the thirty minutes or so before we needed to head upstairs together for reading and bathing.
“I’m going to write a play,” she answered.
“Wonderful idea!” I told her. Holly’s third grade teacher is a playwright and songwriter, and without overtly urging the kids to take up either pursuit, he has probably been responsible for many more creative efforts this year in our household and those of Holly’s classmates than might otherwise take place.
Holly sat down at the desktop computer in the family room while I started collecting dirty laundry. Five minutes later I saw her heading off to another part of the house. “The computer kept freezing,” she announced. “So I’m going to build a blanket fort instead.”
A blanket fort? I wanted to protest. What if Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill or Thornton Wilder – or Shakespeare – had ever-so-nonchalantly decided to go build a blanket fort rather than write a play?
I don’t mean to suggest that my daughter belongs in that pantheon of playwrights, just that I was alarmed at how easily she abandoned her literary pursuits. To my mind, her intent to write a play was obviously much more important than any kind of fort-building, and it was unnerving to see her shrug off the plan so easily.
But at the same time, this is one of the most delightful aspects of children’s creativity: how they haven’t yet distinguished art from craft, creative endeavor from hobby, self-improvement from fun. In my mind, those delineations are always obvious. Going running is important; taking a walk is just for fun. Writing an article matters; writing a Facebook post is a frivolity. Making dinner matters; baking cookies is self-indulgent. And so on. Not that I don’t do the things in the latter category; I do all of those things, walk and write Facebook posts and bake cookies. Just that there’s always the foregone conclusion in my mind as to whether or not any given activity is truly worthwhile or just for fun.
Kids don’t think that way. I remember one summer afternoon when my niece, Phoebe, was about five and I was babysitting for her. She played in the sandbox for about fifteen minutes; then she decided to weed the garden. She knew how to weed a garden; she’d been helping her mother with that job all summer. But what was interesting to me was that from her behavior and her attitude, there was no clear difference between sandbox play and garden maintenance. To me, one was recreation and the other was labor, but to her, both were opportunities to have fun in the dirt.
Still, I didn’t want to give up quite so easily on Holly’s literary ambitions. “You can use my laptop if the desktop isn’t working,” I offered. She considered for a moment, and then I guess the muse called out to her, because she sat down at my laptop and worked for the next half-hour or so on her play. When she read it to me, it sounded like she’d done little more than establish the mood of the opening scene, with three characters having a few lines each of banter. “I’ll work on it more tomorrow,” Holly told me with satisfaction. “Now I’m going to work on my blanket fort.”
My friends who are engineers might say that it’s the blanket fort that’s the really important pursuit here, and the script is a mere amusement. Either way, it’s probably good that she wants to do both. As is true of most kids, her interests are diverse and her judgments about them are minimal. I would be wise to follow her example in both regards.