When I saw a ball coming towards me as a kid, my first thought was: “run.” Not towards the ball but away from it. If the ball was big enough, I might use it to sit on while reading a book. That was about the extent of my experience with balls. I was the archetypal bookworm, knocking over huge displays of breakfast cereal at the grocery store when I walked right into them while reading. One can certainly be both a bookworm and a sports star, just not if one is me.
Though I didn’t know him at the time, my husband was precisely the same way. He was neither asthmatic nor French, but I do imagine him as a little Proust, scribbling feverishly in a notebook, crying for his mother and lingering over cookies. It’s no surprise then, that our children, aged 11, 9 and 4, are ball-averse story junkies.
In general, I love that my kids share one of my great passions. It allows for easy bonding and there’s always someone to talk to about the latest This American Life podcast. Our shared, sedentary interest is also very convenient on those days when I am thoroughly, ruthlessly exhausted – which is to say, pretty much every day.
When they were young (and still with my preschooler) hypnosis via story-telling was the only way I could distract my kids into doing things they didn’t want to do, such as eating, sleeping, going to the bathroom, walking places, and, occasionally breathing.
The one drawback, though, is that the fine arts of reading, writing, talking and listening do not afford children a ton of physical exercise. And as everyone knows, daily physical exertion is necessary for a healthy lifestyle. Perhaps more importantly, daily physical exertion is necessary for sleep.
This is an important fact when you consider that in addition to being ball-averse, my kids are also sleep-averse. The level of exertion necessary to wear my kids out is extraordinarily high, which is somewhat ironic. It is as though jet fuel courses in their veins instead of blood. Physical romps which cause other children to fall alssep on the subway ride home have no affect whatsoever on my children’s level of alertness. I have no explanation for this. I do, however, have a remedy, namely: Run them ragged.
When you’re trying to think up ways to thoroughly drain the charge out from your kids’ batteries, the first thing you think of is: balls. So, recently, I bought the biggest ball I could find and I dragged my children to a nearby basketball court.
“Play with this ball!” I instructed, like I was a mom from Mars impersonating a human. “Throw it in the basket! It is fun!”
And they did, for two and a half minutes. But they soon tired of the endeavor. Sometimes the ball went in, and sometimes it didn’t and either way it seemed to feel about the same.
So I tried a new game.
“Chase it! Get it!” I instructed, throwing the ball away from my kids. In the dog community, I believe this game is referred to as “Fetch” and it’s a huge hit. It’s less popular well with human children.
I did not, however, give up. I took the dog game one step further, unleashing our family’s ace in the hole –imagination.
“Let’s pretend the ball is a dog who’s running away from us!” I told my four-year-old, bouncing the ball away from her. “Fido, you naughty little doggie! Come back here!” And, lo and behold, she ran after it, chortling with glee. But ten minutes later, the novelty had worn off.
“Run, run, run!” I exhorted the kids.
“Why?” they asked.
“You’re kids!” I reminded them. “You don’t need a reason to run! It’s supposed to be what you do. A wolf howls. A bird flies. Children run.”
And that’s when my 11-year-old said: “Let’s play tag.”
As a child, I was not a huge fan of tag. I was too busy inventing soap operas for my Barbies to enact, and gossiping with my imaginary friends.
I wasn’t a big fan of tag as a child but I am a big fan now. It involves constant, ceaseless running, which dovetails nicely with my maternal agenda. It is a game that both an 11-year-old and a 4-year-old can enjoy. And it requires no equipment, making it totally free.
But the real reason I love tag is that it’s one of those games you can only truly enjoy in childhood. You reach a certain age, and the appeal just evaporates. I like a good chase scene . . . but only if I’m watching it in a blockbuster while sitting down and shoving popcorn in my mouth. The kids, though, want to be the stars of the chase scene. It’s exciting. It’s invigorating. It’s high stakes.
I sat on a bench at the park and watched the kids play tag. It was a stunning early summer morning – the sun warming but not yet oppressive. There was a delicious breeze that rustled the leaves and almost made me feel as if I lived in the countryside. My kids each bent down on one knee and stuck their feet together.
“Bubble gum bubble gum in a dish, how many pieces do you wish?” my son began – but my littlest one interrupted him. She is wont to pipe up whenever the opportunity presents itself and frequently even when it doesn’t.
“Let me do it! Let ME say the words!” she insisted. And then: ”Daffy Daffy duck eating apple pie. He sat on a rock and he cried because it hurt his butt! You’re it!”
This last bit was directed to my nine-year-old, who accepted the mantle of “It.”
And they were off.
I sit on the bench and watch them run, their matching golden manes glinting in the sun. Their feet – big and little – pounding the pavement hard. Their arms pumping.
“I’m gonna get you!” my daughter, “It,” shrieks, panting
“Ahhhhhh!” shriek the others, looking over the shoulders, a thrilled grin stretching taut the muscles of their mouths.
They laugh as they run. And I laugh too, from a vicarious exhilaration. They’re alive and ignited and just so free.
And also because they’ll sleep come nighttime.
Nicole C. Kear is the author of the memoir Now I See You (St. Martin’s Press, 2014). Her chapter book series for children, The Fix-It Friends, will be published by Macmillan Kids’ Imprint in spring 2017.