MARK HAYSOM is the author of two novels – LOVE, LOVE ME DO and IMAGINE. In his monthly Blog, he attempts to make sense of the world for his grandson, Theo – and for himself. Theo is now sixteen months old
I was, of course, no different from any other boy. Perfectly content, utterly absorbed, I could sit on the floor for patient hours with little more than an assortment of empty boxes and cartons to play with.
That was all I needed: that and the restless imagination of a child.
Boxes would be stacked, arranged, aligned. New towns, futuristic cities, Manhattan skylines would be created and then – in apocalyptic scenes of appalling devastation – would be flattened, erased. Towers would be lovingly, painstakingly raised, only to be quickly, violently, destroyed. Skyscrapers would climb ever more precariously, reach unsustainable heights and then topple and fall.
And I would begin again. And again.
Watching me, my mother was convinced my future was in construction: I would be a builder, an architect, a town planner. Or alternatively, I would work in demolition. Or munitions.
Later, the games became more complex and the fascination was with cars. I had a vast fleet of Dinky cars, a garage to house them and, in endless hours of play, they would race, screech as they cornered, crash, cross the finishing line.
I knew each one intimately; their personality, their history. I would talk to them, remind them what make they were, where they came from. I congratulated them if they were rare and special; consoled them if they were commonplace but could move like lightning. I had my ever-changing favourites and I would arrange and rank them accordingly.
This particular playtime preoccupation was not confined to the home: I carried it with me, outside and into the world.
Cars were fewer and more distinctive then and, by an early age, I could identify every marque and model on the road. Such was the fierce grip of this obsession that I could even identify most of them by their headlights alone. In the dark.
My mother was convinced I would be a car designer, a mechanic.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY
Later still there were other passions of play and the dreams became my own.
Model aircraft: I would be a pilot, join the RAF. Toy soldiers: I would be a General, a leader of men. Space: I would be an astronomer, an astronaut, an explorer of new worlds. Stamps: I would be a collector, an antiquarian. Cricket: I would play for England, be the next Colin Cowdrey, Fred Trueman. Books: I would become a writer, a storyteller.
I became none of those things, of course – except the last. But how I chose to spend my hours at play, I’m sure, contributed to what I now am. Because that’s the nature of play: shaping us as we learn.
We first try to make sense of the world through the experimentation and repetition of play – what if this box were to go on top of that? or perhaps that yellow brick inside this green box? and does it fit the other way?
We develop our dexterity, our physical awareness, our confidence – if this were to balance on that and then this ball could go in there and then—
We find out what it is to be careful, gentle, patient: and, at the same time, we discover the penalties of being slapdash, of rushing and racing.
We absorb what it is to systematise, categorise, prioritise, create order – sorting our prized possessions, arranging by colour, size, preference.
We kick-start our memories, returning constantly to the games and toys we love.
We fire our imaginations – a cardboard box becomes a castle, a car, a boat, a bed, a spaceship, a sleigh.
We learn to tell stories, to put the worlds of our imagination into words. We weave fantastical narratives as we play; run commentaries of the most extraordinary complexity in our heads.
Finally, with others – parents, grandparents, siblings, friends – we learn to interact, to share. And importantly, we learn new games; their games. Our repertoire is extended, our horizons are expanded, our possibilities grow.
So our games, their games; the games we choose to play, those we leave behind; the stories we tell ourselves when we are young – they all, I think, play some part in moulding us.
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And I like to think I can see it happening now, Theo.
That I can see the carefree child in you as you run and launch yourself headfirst, laughing into your paddling pool.
The careful, watchful child as you sort pegs into the saucepans retrieved from the kitchen drawer – a whole playroom of toys to choose from and ignored.
The sporting child as you chase and throw a ball.
And the boy who already loves books – as you choose to fetch one and bring it to my knee for us to read.