The case for play

There is no manual for parenting. But sometimes you can find little pointers to direct you, breadcrumbs to lead you along the path. 

Discovering this book felt like one of those times. 
I spotted it on a Saturday morning in the Little Free Library at The Grove Aquatic Center. The plastic book jacket lent it a vintage-library look, and I have a soft spot for old picture books
I recognized the illustrator, Quentin Blake, the British cartoonist who illustrated the Roald Dahl books.
I am so glad I grabbed the book on our way home from swim lessons. 
I discovered in its pages one of the most delightful children's books I have ever read, the perfect marriage between text and illustrations -- equally whimsical, incredibly engaging.
I felt awed and grateful that the book had wound up in my hands: published in 1974, bearings stamps and stickers of its longtime home at the Tacoma Public Library and somehow making its way to a Little Free Library in Inver Grove Heights. 
The book tells the story of a boy named Tom who loves to play: 
Tom liked to fool around. He fooled around with sticks and stones and crumpled paper, with mewses and passages and dustbins, with bent nails and broken glass and holes in fences. 
He fooled around with mud, and stomped and squelched and slithered through it. 
He fooled around on high-up things that shook and wobbled and teetered.
Tom's no-nonsense aunt, Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong, frowns upon his mischief making. "Too much playing is not good," she tells him, "and you play too much. You had better stop it and do something useful."
She advises Tom to memorize 10 pages from the Nautical Almanac, which he does, and she keeps a close eye on him.
Tom did not stop fooling around. He did low and muddy fooling around and he did high and wobbly fooling around. 
So she brings in the big guns, Captain Najork and his hired sportsmen. 
Tom's triumph over these so-called sportsmen demonstrates the enduring value of unstructured playtime. 
The book came from Tacoma and landed in a Little Free Library here, and now I'm sharing its wisdom with you. Breadcrumbs for the journey.
It is a much-needed reminder for modern parents inclined to hover and sanitize: There is much to be learned from playtime, from tinkering with the kind of things we are prone to declare off limits: mud, bent nails, broken glass. 
It makes me think of Jeff Bezos, who let his kids play with knives at age 4 and power tools at 7. Better to have nine fingers than be resourceless, quipped the Amazon founder, who spent his childhood summers tinkering at his grandpa's ranch. 
As it comes time to plan your child's summer, greeted by camp pamphlets and Park & Rec brochures, don't forget to allow for fooling around. Remember that some of the best STEM lessons happen outside the classroom, that memorable insights can be gleaned from gardening with Grandma, fishing with Grandpa and slithering through mud. 
Allow space for low and muddy fooling around and high and wobbly fooling around. 
Your kid will thank you.

Christina Ries is a freelance writer who lives with her husband and four children in Inver Grove Heights. Read all her posts at