When I was little, I was outside as much as humanly possible in the spring, summer and fall. Though it might not always have been my idea (I recall my slightly exasperated mother commanding my hyperactive brother and me to “take it outside” on a frequent basis), I’m so grateful for the experience.
A tree on Railway Ave. in Smithers, BC was my first introduction to the extreme joy of playing outdoors. Close investigation revealed it was a series of trunks that grew up close together in a tight circle. A barely discernable gap let me slip into the cozy, hollowed out centre.
From inside my tree, I could see everything going on around me, and no one knew I was even there! A perfect climbing tree with nicely spaced, sturdy branches, it was playhouse, fort, jail, ranch, and office.
On office days, I climbed to a special spot where I had fashioned loose wire loops around a branch. I could work for hours, sitting on the lower “bench” branch and sliding the loops back and forth on the “typewriter” branch. The wire made a great sound too, kind of jingly and clackety all at once. It broke my heart (no, seriously) when we moved to Vancouver and deserted my tree.
But there were consolations. Taxi summer, for example. One year my dad towed the chassis of some old car into our backyard. The fact that it had no body was irrelevant. It had a steering column and steering wheel—the critical parts! I conjured images of a bright yellow taxi for my friends and siblings, and we took turns being the taxi driver stopping for a customer.
We all enjoyed being the cabbie (screeching around corners, slamming on brakes, honking)—but we adored making up people who were waiting for the taxi. Pregnant woman (played most hilariously by my brother). Snobby person. Dangerous criminal. Mean teacher. Person who thinks he’s really a dog. You name it. We were imaginative.
I also visited my grandparents’ massive farm in Hazelton often. If there was anyone who enjoyed playing outside as much as I did, it was my aunt/best friend.
She and I would filch paper lunch bags from the pantry and fill one with smoked Oolichans (Mmmm, so smoky and salty and chewy!), and one with crunchy pink and yellow crab apples.
Barefooted, we’d disappear for hours. Life was complex as Elven princesses. There were ongoing epic battles to be fought, evil rulers to flee, magic to be mastered. My little leather pouch of elf stones proved helpful, and we carried jackknives, of course, for when we needed to make spears or arrows or walking sticks.
When our stomachs sounded a dinner alarm, we headed for the castle or tavern to feast with assorted trolls and miscreants—then moved out again as soon as we could.
When the sky turned purple (and in the North, that’s delightfully late!), we knew it was time to retreat to the inn, filthy-footed and exhausted.
To this day, I don’t know if there’s anything better than having your bedtime snack when you can hardly keep your eyes open, then crawling into bed smelling like tree sap and fresh air and dirt, your limbs so tired they almost ache—and the soft, all is right in the world feeling of clean sheets and blankets wrapping you in a sleepy cloud. . . .
A lot of people hit adulthood and yard time suddenly becomes chore time. As I explained to one of my young nieces, however, though it’s kind of weird, some stuff you call work as a kid becomes fun, almost like playing, once you’re an adult (except for dishes. Dishes are always horrible).
So yes, you’ll find me weeding and watering. But you’ll also find me meandering about, staring into the sky daydreaming, and playing in the lake. My feet still need to be scrubbed before bed in the summer.
I hope you have your own fond memories of playing outside—and that you keep making them. Let me send you off with words from my mother that I could never hear enough: “Get outside and play. Now!”
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This column originally appeared as my April 2012 column, but since some things never change—like my love of playing hooky outdoors and my immense delight and relief when spring finally arrives after a long winter—I wanted to share it again. I hope you’re yelling, hear, hear!