Tuesday might be an ordinary summer day for most people, but it’s the designated day my friend and I, whose boys are the same age as mine, meet at the beach for our weekly play date. We love to catch up while working on our tans and our boys love to play. By play, I mean dig. We’ve learned over the years that it doesn’t matter how many buckets, beach balls or water guns we pack in our toy bag; as long as a shovel is within reach, nothing else matters.
Every Tuesday, the boys spend hours digging and narrating. They dig and dig and dig. They add water and create adventures. They dig some more. They add more water and create new adventures. They make rivers that chart undiscovered territories or dams to thwart invasion attempts by mean pirates. A boy with a vivid imagination can tell endless stories and I believe his shovel is the best collaborator.
“Mom, look! I made Mount Everest!” my son beams.
Sure enough, I turn around and see a huge mound of sand with an American flag gently propped on top. Today my son is a mountain climber in Nepal. Next week he and his friends might be paleontologists digging up dinosaur fossils. Put a shovel in a boy’s hand and he’s transformed to an imaginary world of his own making.
Over the years we’ve had several different shovels of all sizes and types: little red and yellow plastic shovels, scoop shovels, rake shovels and shovels with minuscule holes that filter chunks of sand. But the most in-demand shovel, by far, is the biggest shovel. Elation is etched on each sun-kissed face as the big shovel gets passed from boy to boy. Each one is convinced, as so many of us were before him, that if he digs long enough he really will find China.
On a simple level, the shovel’s function is to move sand. But I’ve witnessed a much more profound purpose. The shovel encourages sharing, camaraderie and imagination like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Each boy has to figure out what his role is in their games of make-believe. Sometimes he’s the leader who gets to decide what to do with the shovel. Sometimes he just has to follow. Sometimes his plans go through without a hitch, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes he has to stop and consider others’ feelings, sometimes he doesn’t. Most of the time, though, he just digs.
Not many television shows, video games or structured day camps can provide the kind of creative, resourceful education our boys dig up every Tuesday. From early morning until late afternoon, with a break in between for lunch, our boys are doing what boys do best…exploring.
With a shovel in hand, anything is possible.
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