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A Bonus Year by Emily Benz

07 Jul 2021 3:20 PM | Reggio Inspired Network of MN (Administrator)

My first child is growing up, up, up and away, faster with each passing day. He is in the last few months of his fifth grade year, just four months shy of turning twelve and five months or so from his first day of middle school. I’m not sure how it is possible, but my son is now a tween, and I can see the hints of it in the ways he is beginning to pull away; he is well on his way to becoming a teenager.

Much of this was evident in the winter of 2020, when he was ten, and in the fourth grade. He was more interested in playing basketball than building creations with LEGOs, more intrigued by his Nintendo Switch than the games of make believe he’d played for so many years with his younger sister. School took much of his time, sports practice and games ate up some of our precious evenings, and the weekends flew by in a blur of socializing and activities. I felt that it was too hectic, but that was just the way life was for most all of the families we knew.

But something happened when the world shut down last March. With the influence of fourth grade and peers removed, time didn’t just slow down. In our home, time actually reversed course. My son had the time to be bored, to imagine and to play again. My son had a little more time to be little.

This didn’t happen on its own. We had the amazing good fortune of friends of ours moving into a home behind ours the first weekend of March of 2020. They have three children, and since we were all staying at home from everything by mid-March, we decided to band together to weather the storm as a sort of two house commune. There were so many gifts that came along with this decision. We cooked meals for one another, gave each other a social outlet and watched over each other’s children to alleviate the stress of remote learning. But the most special gifts of all were the relationships that developed between the five children and the imaginative play that followed for all of them together.

The youngest of the group was four, the oldest was my son, then ten. But they never separated by gender lines or into age groups. They just spent time as a group, three boys and two girls, grateful to have each other. They played in the woods and captured a snake, and many little frogs and toads, creating habitats and then releasing after observing. They made an art studio and painted water colors and held a gallery show, and the grownups were instructed to dress up in order to attend. They built elaborate LEGO houses and then a LEGO world where they hosted each other for holidays and birthdays – bountiful LEGO social lives where birthday parties could actually be attended and holidays could be celebrated with others, unlike the actual world they were living in. They wrote and filmed a stop motion LEGO film, choreographed a dance recital and rehearsed and performed a couple of choral concerts - all for only four lucky adult attendees - their parents. They played endless games outside: four square, freeze tag and cherry bomb, and my personal favorite, “Shipwreck,” where they pretended they were shipwrecked children that had to survive on their own in a new and different world without adults. Shipwreck made me wonder about how much their new Covid world influenced this imaginary world. Their Covid world was without teachers, coaches, or grandma and grandpa and aunts and uncles. It was a world with only their parents - and even then, their parents were not the same parents - they were frazzled by the responsibilities of remote learning, navigating an often stressful and heartbreaking world that changed each day, and some with jobs that had demands like never before. Shipwreck gave them agency, and didn’t saddle them with the baggage of parents who often seemed either distracted or on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

His time with his neighbor crew changed with the seasons. When the two families went back in person to different schools in the fall, the children preferred to play outside, even when chilly, and play inside included masks. They still had plenty of time to create together, as no one was socializing or rushing off to any kind of practice. With hybrid and pod models and distancing all around, school peers had less influence. The lure of imaginary play remained for him all through the fall and winter, though I can finally see it losing some of its lustre this spring. He recently rearranged his bedroom and made a huge give away pile of toys and treasures of a younger era, and the pile included some LEGOS.

Did my son lose some things during all of this? Yes, of course. We all lost things, and as we know, some lost much more than others. His losses are minor compared to so many, but in his world, they loom large. He lost precious time with his grandparents and other dear family members that live far and wide, he lost three months of his education, as remote learning was a struggle for him. He lost time playing basketball, a sport he loves, and he lost time with his friends from school - friends he has known for years and years. But I saw him gain so much, too, in our tiny world. As he played in the woods, spun stories and got lost in the possibilities of LEGO parts with his band of friends, I saw the pressure of growing up slide away. I saw him letting go of the real world, and instead, choosing the pretend world, where anything could happen with the right storyline and willing partners. And so, even though this last year was painful in so many ways, I can look back at it with gratitude for the magical gift it gave our family. As I see him today, back in school and growing up and away at an alarming clip, I look back at the chaos and confusion and can see clearly what our time at home gave to him - a bonus year of being a child.

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