In part one of this article I tried to lay out how certain elements of our contemporary and secular-minded society have gone to great lengths to stifle and control the imaginations of our kids. They do this by shrinking the world that children experience to the lowest common denominator, so that only those aspects of daily life that will ensure its continued existence are highlighted. As Christians, we know that ultimately this will come into conflict with our innate vertical yearnings to know and worship our Creator, rather than the institutions that shape or order His creation.
One way of fortifying our kids against this horizontal flattening is of course through education, but another is through our playtime with them. By engaging in activities that are ripe with meaning and instruction, while at the same time are fun and exciting, we will be three steps ahead of our society’s attempts to shape our children’s minds away from their proper ends.
This notion of talking about playtime on a men’s site may seem out of place, but understand this. It is one thing to complain about how we shouldn’t fear (as a popular meme points out) a coming zombie apocalypse, because it is already here in the form of kids and teens mindlessly zoning out on their personal electronic devices. It is another thing entirely to truthfully examine our own participation in any such mindlessness, make the appropriate changes, and then be an example for others to follow.
Whether you are a father or not, the point is that in a world filled with too many young men who just can’t seem to get a grip on the whole “maturity-thing”, you have to ask yourself whether you are part of that problem. If in fact you are and you are a parent, then understand that there is a kind of manly Manna that your kids desperately need in order to maintain their humanity, that only you can give them. If you are not a parent, your willingness to reject a culture that offers men only cheap thrills and diminished expectations, is key to being a role-model to those kids who are trapped in a world where they are constantly looking down. In both cases, it is time to get kids to start looking up and all around, and to stoke their imaginations.
So here are my suggestions for five activities that are both fun and illuminating.
1. Organizing a Rescue
Many of us grew up playing war or some other activity where the good guys battled the bad guys. These games have been around as long as there have been kids, and they are important in developing the intuitive sense of right and wrong that has been written into our hearts. Only recently, however, have our modern sensibilities balked at having kids pretending to commit acts of violence against one another.
However, there is a solution for the Maccabee among us. Go to a thrift or second-hand store and buy the ugliest stuffed animals or dolls you can find. Then strategically place them throughout your yard and have one of your kids volunteer to be the prisoner that needs to be “rescued.” Then arm your kids with all the weaponry they want and have them rescue their friend or sibling from the clutches of the bad guys by shooting or clobbering the stuffed animals or dolls. Now I’m guessing that a lot of people will find what I just said “problematic”, but think of it this way.
Violence is part of our fallen world, and it does no good to pretend that it isn’t. So it behooves us as men (since we are the ones statistically most likely to engage in it) to inculcate in our kids strict rules and limits as to when resorting to it is or isn’t the right thing to do. Thus, try incorporating notions such as self-defense, restraint of the passions, having a duty to care for those with whom you have been entrusted, defending the weak, and of course the tenets of the Just War Theory by creating scenarios that highlight those points.
Before moving on, I want to say something about “playing” with weapons. I know parents who will not let their kids play with any weapons, some who say yes to swords or archery but no to toy guns, and many other variations in between. My own opinion on the matter is that I don’t really see the difference between playing with a gun or a sword, the intent is the same. I think it is just the social perception that people currently have about guns that makes them shun their toy versions. In this matter I will defer to Catholic author Michael O’Brien who said in his book A Landscape with Dragons about letting kids play with weapons, “The secret is not to deprive the child of a sword but to make it with him and teach him a code of honor. In other words chivalry, character, responsibility, and justice.” (O’Brien, 36)
Lastly, some parents I know will not let their kids play with toy guns if they are planning on teaching their kids how to hunt, so as not to develop bad habits. This is certainly a valid point but to me all it means is that you should incorporate proper gun safety into your kid’s play: controlling the muzzle, keeping the finger off the trigger until ready to shoot, and maintaining them. Make your kids “clean” their toy weapons after playtime and have them store them in an old pillow case or a special chest specifically for them. Also I think it is best to use toy guns that actually fire a projectile, since nothing will teach kids to be more attentive when they are armed than an errant dart that hits one of their own siblings or better yet be a mensch and volunteer to “take one” to demonstrate why they need to be careful.
2. Solving a Mystery
I am sure you have all seen the game How to Host a Murder and some of you might have played a card game called Werewolf where players try to deduce who the culprit is through the process of elimination. Aside from engaging the imagination to fill out the scenarios, these games are actually a great way to introduce kids to both inductive and deductive reasoning. So why not set up a crime scene yourself? It doesn’t have to be anything as morbid as a murder, perhaps a robbery, a kidnapping, a swindle, or some other injustice (a person who is unjustly accused of a crime!).
The key is to plant the seeds for logical thinking early on via Sherlock Holmes’s admonitions to Watson, “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?” Better yet, get a copy of Peter Kreeft’s Socratic Logic and learn what are the most common logical fallacies and have the “suspects” use them as their excuse as to why “Its not me!” Thus, even if your kids are too young to fully understand the fallacies, they are at least being exposed to them in seed form, and are thus on their way to becoming some truly high functioning thinkers.
3. Going on a Treasure Hunt
We all know kids love stories about hunting for buried treasure. I used to watch Leonard Nimoy talk about lost treasure hoards on In Search Of when I was a kid, and now my own kids can’t get enough of The Curse of Oak Island on the History channel. I’m not sure what it is that we find so alluring about these stories, but there has to be more to it than just a desire for material wealth. Is it possible that our desire to find something of great value that has been lost or is hidden, is a sort sympathetic resonance with the divine? Perhaps it is like a kind of homing instinct found in migratory birds, where we are given signs, both seen and unseen, that lead us to an ultimate destination that as yet is still a mystery? Who knows, but our Lord was certainly fond of using such imagery in his parables, so it wouldn’t hurt to point out the connection to our kids.
You can pick up some very nicely made treasure chests online or small wooden boxes at cigar shops for next to nothing. Get some parchment at an art store and spend an hour some night drawing up a map that the kids can follow to find the chest that you will bury. Just make sure to add in a few riddles for them to solve or offer a few “false clues” that could potentially lead them astray. As for what to put inside it, that will vary according to taste, but religious items or prayer cards are certainly worthwhile.
In addition to learning basic map and perhaps even compass reading skills, your kids will learn to work together to solve problems as well as sharing the workload when it comes to digging or uncovering the treasure. After several scenarios, your kids will no doubt get the hang of it and pretty soon will be drawing up their own maps or weaving their own stories about their own pearls of great price!
4. Adventures After Dark
Any parent will tell you how hard it can be to get their kids to understand certain Bible passages because some concepts can only be understood through direct experience. One such concept is all the imagery in Sacred Scripture concerning light and darkness. All kids go through a period where they are afraid of the dark and it can be a debilitating one. So when it comes to the notion of Christ being the “Light of the world” (Jn 8:12) or the light overcoming the darkness (Jn 1:5), a child’s fear of the dark will most likely win out.
However, by doing things in the dark with our kids, we can teach them to control their fear and to build up a sense of security in the presence of others with whom they love and trust. Plus it is a good way for them to imagine what our Lord meant when he asks us to be “salt and light” to the world. It can be in the basement, an attic, a garage, or even outside at night (it gets dark before dinner time up here in Minnesota in the winter). Also, let’s face it, its fun! Kids are fascinated by flashlights, lanterns, and other light-making devices. For the scientifically-minded child, order a carbide miner’s lantern online and watch how exciting they will find using one.
From my own experience, I owned a lawn care business for over ten years and every winter, I took all the oily rags I had accumulated and tied them to the ends of sticks to make torches for my kids. Yes I had to reassure their mom we would be careful, yes the eco-warriors on the block gasped in horror at our wanton burning of fossil fuels, and yes the rest of the neighbors would stare out the window wondering what was going on, but when you’re hunting vampires, flashlights just don’t cut it!
Be careful though, as your kids might get too brave in the dark and want to go exploring on their own. Always go with them or with an older sibling when going outside at night.
5. Playing that Other Ball Game
I’m going to go out on a sequoia-like limb here and assume you all remember the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, about a boy named Calvin and his stuffed tiger Hobbes, who was also his imaginary friend. One of the more amusing story lines was a game Calvin played called “Calvinball”
“Other kids’ games are such a bore! They’ve gotta have rules and they’ve gotta keep score! Calvinball is better by far! Its never the same! Its always bizzare!” (for those who remember it, don’t forget to “harmonize on the rumma tum tums!”)
The point here is that you should never underestimate your children’s ability to understand the subtle intricacies of their favorite games or sports. They may surprise you by coming up with what they think is a “better” way to play it, or even come up with their own game altogether. This is certainly something to encourage so long as you help them develop a set of rules to play by (sorry Calvin), but also how to be flexible when certain rules don’t work out.
Aside from them getting exercise and learning good sportsmanship habits, it will also teach them to take criticism with charity from others as the bugs in the rules are worked out. Moreover, through a determined process of trial and error, kids can learn how challenging it can be to design a system of rules that seek to balance out opportunity and outcome. In the end, this process will teach them the wisdom to understand the limits of their ability to control situations they can and to let go of the ones they can’t.
I mentioned in part one, the purpose of this site is for Christian men to uplift and encourage one another, so if you have any ideas that you would like to offer, please feel free to do so in the comments sections below.a