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Recreation and children

Originally published in the November 2008 issue of The Angelus magazine.


Recreation and children

By Mrs. Mary Reed Newland

Usually the summer months are the time when recreation is the prime topic of conversation. Mary Reed Newland, who lived with her husband and six children in rural Massachusetts, shares her thinking on the subject

Recreation means so many different things to so many people that this trying to sit down and write simply about “recreation” is likely to end up way off center. For some people it means what you do at summer camp, summer resorts, or clam bakes. And for some it means what you do on playgrounds, at nursery schools or on nature walks. And for still some more it means deciding between the movies, TV, dinner and dancing or a drink with friends, and so on. One man’s meat is another man’s poison, and to try to describe recreation as everyone sees it is impossible.

It must be fun

For parents, recreation is as much a part of the spiritual training of their children as anything else, with one simple distinction: to be recreation, for a child, it must be fun. The other lessons aren’t always fun, and some can be quite painful, but this one doesn’t qualify unless it is. It isn’t always fun for mothers, and in their human weakness, at the end of a long day of interruptions and messes and wasted time, they are likely to look at some of the most satisfying forms of recreation and see them as strictly a pain in the neck. By the same token, a child will sometimes look back on what parents have planned as a recreation and be either too tired, too full, or too confused to get much benefit from it. This is not meant to be, however, a blanket disapproval of planned recreation or a finger-wagging at mothers who can’t take mud pies on the kitchen floor, but simply a reflection on the fact that recreation thinking these days has taken such a specialized turn that we are inclined to lose our really delicate perception in regard to it.

The first years of a child’s life are almost all recreation, or he won’t get through them happily. From his point of view and for all he doesn’t know it, learning, eating, discovering, inventing, all things that are fun and exciting, even humdrum but satisfying, are a form of recreation, which the dictionary defines as “refreshment of body or mind; diversion, amusement, as a pleasurable exercise or occupation.” And the best clues to what recreation is for him come from him. Toys come first of all, at least things to play with, and here he often neatly evades what the grown-ups would have him accept as proper and fitting things. For example, every family’s experience with the baby who, having unveiled all the Christmas gifts, returns to the kitchen to get out the pots on Christmas morning. After talking a lot but doing nothing about it, this past Christmas we bought our baby’s gifts in the housewares department of the five and ten, and he had the best time ever with sets of colored paper cups, plastic measuring spoons, a plastic scratcher for scrubbing pots and pans and a slightly off-plumb egg beater. Not that he did not enjoy the gifts people gave him, but children have an affinity for imitating grown-ups in their play, and to take advantage of it is to open one of the widest corridors to a child’s learning.

Work is play

Little girls love getting toy dishes and stoves, but they prefer being busy around their mothers’ dishes and stoves and until they grow wary enough to identify such carryings on with work (and, absorbing some of the attitude of a fallen world toward work, start to shy away from it) some of their very best times are had washing dishes, overseeing the cooking, and especially, particular joy, scrubbing the sink. They sometimes waste more scouring than they need, and hypnotized by the multiplication of soapsuds, pour out more soap than they need, but the meditations and musings to be bought for a nickel’s worth of soap or scouring powder are rare and wonderful things, and if we really stopped to put a value on them we’d find such soul-satisfactions cannot be bough for price. One of the most confounding evidences for the argument that recreation is sometimes intimately allied to forms of work is that remark often heard from little girls, “I love doing dishes at someone else’s house.”

Just because a kitchen is associated in our minds as a place to work does not mean that it is not one of the very best places to play, also. Just as garages and cellar work benches are, for little boys, very good places to play. If we have lost sight of this, not because we are stupid or insensitive but merely busy and distracted, we can regain the perspective by stopping to put ourselves in their places, to see, not the work schedule interrupted by the pottering child, but the pottering child who will soon be a woman. Considering the span from the cradle to the grave and the reason for man’s being here, play that is imitation of man’s work is really instinctive, and understandable, and God’s way for preparing His creatures little by little for maturity. And it shows that God made man so that no matter how rich or how poor, recreation depends more on what is inside him than what is outside, and why, when to his parents the cluttered yard and the bald spots on the lawn are anathema, to a child they can be a paradise.

Sometimes it is the children of the poor who invent the best recreations of all, precisely because they must invent them. Once, when we were really scraping the bottom of the barrel, we discovered our boys—with nothing that would qualify remotely as commonly catalogued recreational paraphernalia–had taken an old mop handle, fastened to it a piece of discarded hose, dragged alongside an empty crate and on the crate was the sad, sad remnant of what had once been another child’s toy tractor. One boy was in the crate, under the tractor, giving it a grease job, and another was pumping gas in it with the hose fastened to the mop handle. If we had qualms about what a child needs to be provided with in order to entertain and instruct himself, it was then we cast them to the winds.

Educational toys

It’s so much simpler than the specialists like to imply. We know of a couple who were determined their child should have nothing but the most highly recommended educational toys to play with—which toys are good and fun, but along with them goes a kind of informal I.Q. test. They bought a wooden mailbox equipped with different shaped blocks which fitted into shaped slots, and presenting it, sat back to calculate their small son’s ability to figure out which blocks went into which slots. He looked it over, took out all the blocks, then turning the box upside down discovered the master slot for removing the blocks, opened it and, willy-nilly, dumped in the blocks. God love him, he was so far ahead of them that one encounter left it behind–for all it was prescribed for his age and development.

So recreation, it seems, is a very fluid thing and likely to be discovered under the appearances of mere meddling, or messing around, or cluttering up, and is also sometimes quite recognizable as “play.” Like all other things in life, it has to be subject to some regulation but at the same time not categorized and frozen in a set form. No one is suggesting, of course, that all a child’s recreational peccadilloes be catered to or tolerated ad infinitum for fear of cutting him off from his play—or, like one family, the jungle gym be moved into the living room (it really happened) come winter and the end of the climbing outdoors season. It simply takes the same love and judgment (how easy this sounds! ) to handle it as it takes to handle rewards, punishments, assignment of work, and all the rest of the parts of growing up. And like these other things, it has a definite relation to God and along with “recreating” should go learning to offer it to God.

Recreation and religion

You mean,” Peter said, “that you can offer everything that’s good to God? Playing? Even just standing still?” Even playing, just standing still, everything that is good, because everything that is good is a reflection of God’s goodness and is a gift as much as those strange gifts of pain and trial He sends to perfect our wills. We receive the grace to have fun, just as we receive the grace to do other things. I think it was Monsignor Knox who said in one of his Slow-Motion books that he hoped his spiritual charges, offering up things for him, were remembering to offer a movie or two (cinema, he said) or a good cricket match, because he didn’t want sour things only offered as prayers for him. And if we remind them often enough and lovingly enough, and after really good fun perhaps we shall help establish the connection between all forms of recreation and prayer. Otherwise, unless one anticipates a life of endless misery, it would be impossible to “pray always.” At the same time it ought to establish deep in the subconscious, the instinctive awareness of things that are fitting recreation as compared to those which are not fitting, and therefore cannot be offered as prayer.

There is a disinclination on the part of some people to “drag religion into the business of having fun," when to ignore our relation to God in our recreation (while bleating constantly to Him about our work, our finances, our aches and pains) is the thing that is out of place, not the reverse. I have never seen a picnic or beach party spoiled yet by the acknowledgment, “Wasn’t God good to give us this lovely day,” or “If it weren’t for original sin, there’d be no sand in the potato salad,” and barring overdoses of out and out sermons, the fabric of detachment—seeing all things against a background of God—is woven step by step a little bit tighter with each acknowledgment that, but for His cloudless sky, or warm sand, or infinite foresight that would permit man to one day invent the hot dog, this party wouldn’t have been half as much fun.

And at the times of the great feasts, outright religious recreations, including even mixed groups, are far more successful and satisfying—by virtue of the graces of the feasts, I am sure—than amusement for the sake of amusement. Many times it is the only opportunity for apparently religion-less people to acknowledge, awkwardly perhaps, a divine instinct deep inside which wants to be given a voice. The times when we have invited non-Catholics to celebrate the great vigils or feasts with us have been very happy gatherings, with—in the case of Halloween—the interesting discovery that when the background for the vigil is explained, the compulsion to indulge in even mild vandalism seems pointless.

Community recreation

Because we are part of society, it is important that we think of recreation in terms of neighborhood and community recreation as well as in terms of family recreation. I know no parents who are deliberately anticipating bad entertainment habits as part of their children’s growing up—only those who worry about the possibility; but too often all thought on the subject omits any real practical effort to forestall what is undesirable. It isn’t an original idea, but neighborhood action is the answer, and recently several nationally circulated articles have told of communities enforcing curfews, party conventions, formal dress customs and so forth. Most of these accounts have dealt with situations already out of hand, and how they were brought under control, but what is to stop the parents of the very young from establishing patterns which will preclude their getting out of hand?

We have begun feeling our way with a plan in our neighborhood, and even though there is wide difference in our various religious beliefs, we all agree that we want to raise wholesome, moral children. We want our children to grow up with a sense of recreation that does not limit itself to going to movies, listening to the radio, tearing around in hot rods or drinking beer and dancing. None of these things is essentially bad in itself, but the world holds so much more.

Mountain climbing

Our initial step at a neighborhood entertainment was a mountain climb. We have on our land what is (by some people) laughingly called a “mountain” complete with trees, rocks, lichen, moss, fungi, birds, animals and fresh air. Best of all, it has a top which, when you reach it, you sit on and then you turn around and come down. Children from 4 to 10 years old were included, with five mothers—we had twenty people in all. We all climbed, and after the climb we all ate, informally, coffee cake and cocoa. Not very world-shaking, but highly successful as a planned recreation, and the goodbyes were studded with, “Oh thanks—we had the best time.” Living with a mountain ceases to be a novelty after a while, and under other circumstances I might have heard my children react to the suggestion that they climb it with, “Oh, mother—we already climbed it.” But gather a group of people together and suggest it, and all of a sudden it’s a terrific idea. So too is eating your lunch, or picking blueberries, or wading in the brook—when you all do it together. We haven’t the time or money or transportation facilities to go off on elaborate forays in search of recreation, but we can work away at the business of establishing in our children’s minds many wholesome forms of recreation by planning the simple things and getting them to do them together.

Successful group recreation doesn’t seem to depend on the elaborate as much as it does on unity and enthusiasm, and if our experiences have been a measure, I think that city families in the same block or apartment house can make trips to the park, to the zoo, rides on the ferry, a trip to the museum just as exciting for their children as our (really prosaic) mountain climb was for ours, without spending more than bus fare or money for ice cream cones.

Families can recreate together

What’s new about all this? Nothing—really, except perhaps our stopping to observe that more and more we have grown used to the idea that planned recreation is the function of recreation directors, community centers, summer playground programs, day trips and scout troops. And if we are convinced that this is so, then we have been sold a bill of goods. Somehow, some way, families—even families with one or two babies still in dipes, and fathers working odd shifts in factories—can challenge this idea that recreation for all of them together is no longer possible. If no other way, then by doing as a family I know did—declaring a “children’s day” and leaving the chores where they were at a set time and simply doing things that were fun together. To neglect recreation, to consign it to the category of things “kids will do anyway,” is like saying “kids will eat anyway,” and not bothering to care what they eat.

And looking ahead to the day when in high school they will be driven by that overpowering urge to run with the pack—to neglect the opportunities to band together now in neighborhood groups and plan wholesome recreation is missing the one big chance to set the standards of the pack. Groups of Catholic high school girls all over the country have begun to establish conventions in modest evening dresses simply by, together, demanding them from designers. Whether it’s strapless evening dresses, driving cars, drinking, whatever, something can be done, and the earlier the better. Small children gather the strength and security for sound social behavior first of all from their spiritual training and their family life, but sometimes the best of them alone will waver before the pressure of ridicule and custom and “everybody does it.” Supported by a group whose tastes are as wholesome as theirs, they stand a much better chance of weathering the delicate, dangerous years of adolescence and first experiments with maturity.

A community fair

Through organizations like PTA and others, essentially family organizations, there is recreational application to be made on even a broader level—the community itself. Our PTA is holding a Town Fair this year, the first in many years, and almost the entire program depends on the fruits of creative family recreation, whether crafts, hobbies, flowers, herbs, art work or whatever. And for all the fun of entering the exhibits, the best fun of all is going together, with the mothers stopping to see the quilts and hooked rugs and the needlepoint, and the fathers the cabinet work and the metal craft and the chair caning, and the children to smell the herbs—taste them if they are brave, and discuss the flower show awards, criticize the art. Hard work, you may say, putting on a fair—hardly a recreation for any but those who will stroll through it. But not many of the people who work on it would agree. It is hard work, but in a strange way it is also recreation.

Re-creating gladness

Defining recreation gets “curiouser and curiouser” as you try to track the meaning down, because it is so many different things to so many different people. For some it is work, for some play, for some study, for one lady I know it is caring for the altar and cleaning the sanctuary (most of her friends tell her this is a job for the janitor). Maybe the reason it is so elusive is that we never really look at the word and what it’s made of—re-creation. What man attempts to do when he seeks recreation as a change and a refreshment from the weariness of his daily work is to re-create the gladness of heart of his first parents before the fall, when all the world and all of life was full of joy in a creation that was free of sin. Christ accomplished a re-creation when He redeemed us and poured His blood over a fallen world, establishing a society in His Mystical Body through which we could find paradise again in spite of the continuing presence of evil.

Outside of Him, all our attempts to recreate fall short, the joy is never more than transitory, the recreation rarely more than a diversion. But in Him we can find it—and maybe that is the secret of why the saints’ lives were such a fusion of what we call by the common words—work, suffering, prayer, play—because they discovered that He is the instrument of re-creation, and in Him all human activity can become a recreation.


First published in July 1953, this article is included in the forthcoming fourth volume of Integrity articles from Angelus Press called Motherhood and Family. Mary Reed Newland was a prolific writer and mother of seven. She was a regular contributor to Integrity.