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Tag Archives: unstructured play
For June 21, in honor of the first (official) day of summer, we read a magical summer story called “The Raft” by Jim LaMarche. As the author himself says in his Author’s Note at the beginning, “The Raft” is a semiautobiographical tale about “a summer in the woods, a special grandparent, becoming a river rat, and becoming an artist.” It’s an outstanding book that gets extra points from me for how much it resonated with our oldest daughter.
Nicky is a little city boy who begins the book in the car with his father, despondent at the soul-crushing prospect of spending a summer alone in the country with his “river rat” grandma. For crying out loud, Grandma doesn’t even have a TV! Unperturbed by Nicky’s attitude, Grandma – whose house is full of her sketches and wood sculptures – keeps Nicky busy stacking firewood, cleaning gutters, changing spark plugs on her old truck, and fishing for dinner (unsuccessfully). Nicky seems determined not to enjoy himself, until, a few days into his summer, an old raft bumps into the dock where Nicky is sitting with his fishing pole. The raft is accompanied by a flock of birds and it has drawings of animals all over it. His curiosity piqued (who drew those pictures?), Nicky corrals the mysterious raft. The next day he and his Grandma go on a raft trip together, and grandma teaches Nicky to pole the raft himself. From that point forward, Nicky can’t wait to finish his chores so that he can explore the river on his own, watching the animals along the bank and sketching them. Sometimes, grandma and Nicky picnic together on the river as Nicky does cannonballs from the raft, and he even occasionally sets up a tent and sleeps on the raft.
One day late in the summer, Nicky rescues a little fawn who he observes from the raft. The fawn is caught in the mud, so Nicky poles over, sets him free and carries him up to his mother. Afterwards, he sketches the fawn on the raft, and his grandma helps him to outline his drawing with oil paint. “Now, you’ll always be a part of the river,” she tells him…a river rat just like grandma.
This was another three-love book (as in “I love love love” this book) for our oldest. Mr. Lamarche’s warm, earth-tone illustrations are soft and comforting, and the story is sweet and inspiring. Reading this book made me want to get our girls out to the country side before they are too much older – to play and explore in the woods.
“Marian called it Roxaboxen (she always knew the name of everything.) There across the road, it looked like any rocky hill – nothing but sand and rocks, some old wooden boxes, cactus and greasewood and thorny ocotillo – but it was a special place.” Indeed, it is a special place – and the story of “Roxaboxen” by Alice McLerran and Barbara Cooney is a very special book. It is a lovely tribute to the joy of unstructured outdoor play and to the power of a child’s imagination to create elaborate, magical worlds of adventure out of a pile of sticks, stones, and old discarded boxes.
Although Marian names the place, she shares it with her sisters and their neighbors – and around this group of children an entire city eventually appears, built on the foundation of their cumulative imaginations. There is a mayor (Marian, naturally), streets are marked off with rocks, houses built out of old boxes, and little Frances marks her fence with desert glass. There is buried treasure everywhere in the form of pebbles(!) – the currency which fuels the economy of Roxaboxen. There is even a bakery next to two(!) ice cream parlors, and everyone keeps trying both kinds of ice cream, because in Roxaboxen you can eat all the ice cream you want.
Everyone in Roxaboxen has a car (all you needed was a round thing for a steering wheel), but beware: if you speed, you must go to jail and stand among the cactus. For some reason, quiet little Anna May is always speeding…as though she likes going to jail. Of course, if you had a horse (a stick and bridle) you could go as fast as you wanted. There are wars on Roxaboxen, and a cemetery in case anyone dies, but the only occupant of the cemetery is a dead lizard. Sometimes, especially in winter, when the weather is bad and the children are in school, Roxaboxen is quiet…but even so, it is always there waiting.
And so it goes, from one season to the next, until one by one the inhabitants of Roxaboxen move away. But none of the children ever forget – and Roxaboxen has not forgotten them. In fact, more than fifty years later, when Frances returns to that magical hill, she sees the white stones still bordering Main Street and the desert glass still marking the location of her house…amethyst, amber and sea green.
This book has quickly become one of our all-time favorites. We love the idea of creating an entire world out of a lonely, deserted hill; it is a perfect example of the magic only children’s imaginations can work. Ms. McLerran’s prose is poetic, and Ms. Cooney’s artwork – as we have come to expect – enhances the joyful and carefree feel of the story as well as the humor. I particularly enjoyed the childlike logic that created a world where cars are subject to speed limits, but anyone with a “horse” is able to speed to their heart’s content…and yet, there is still a resident of Roxaboxen who feels compelled to drive a car and speed anyway. The accompanying picture of little Anna May standing stoically in jail among the cactuses made us all laugh out loud.
We have always enjoyed watching our girls at play in the yard, acting out stories created out of whole cloth inside their own heads and I wish we had the opportunity to see it more. It feels like unstructured play is an increasingly uncommon luxury for children. And yet, I whole heartedly believe that this kind of play is the foundation for both intellectual development and emotional resilience. The author’s note in the back of the book informs the reader that Roxaboxen is a real place (of course it is!). Ms. McLerran wrote the story with the help of her mother’s childhood manuscripts, the memories of relatives, and with letters and maps from the “city’s” former inhabitants. This book made us all want to head out to the countryside, and let our girls run free to create a brand new magical world all their own.