Old-fashioned Mind Play

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Make-believe was our most important entertainment equipment, our XBox mindcrafting soft technology some six decades ago.

Graphic display was called “imagination” spontaneously projected on the screen of the visual brain. Sound effects were produced on the spot. Some–like rolls of caps–were from props, most were monaural engine sounds and sirens, whoops and whinnies, by mouth of course.

The memories of childhood play are still in there somewhere, and for some odd reason, this weird three-dimensional decaying tree stump brought all that back to the surface a few weeks back  as Ann and I walked a high seldom-visited logging road above the pasture.

I insisted I should stop and take this picture. She did not understand why I wanted it. I didn’t either. Something in this ragged rotting root evoked a memory. I only retrieved that story when I got the image home and gazed at it on the monitor for some while. Then it came to life.

I could see toy soldiers or cowboys and Indians doing battle from the parapets or inside the keeps and secret chambers of that old stump. What memory had seen that the eye at first could not was a stage produced by nature where a six year old mind creates his own epic adventure with heros and villains, crisis and resolution.

Three dimensional! Lasts for years! All natural! No batteries required! Not available in a store near you!

Where did your imagination make stories as a child? Odds are very high that it was outdoors and that you spend untold hours there.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. My two sisters and I played outside for hours. Like many of our generation, we were free to roam and explore where ever we liked. I know we were better off for that! I mourn the loss of this freedom for today’s children. We will not know the effects of their “screen dominated” upbringing for many years!

  2. Many afternoons with friends (when I was a little girl long, long ago) began with a simple phrase …. “Let’s play like ___________” and our imaginations took us to exciting places. I think many children are losing their ability to use their own imaginations when they depend on television, video games, and things like that to provide entertainment.

  3. My childhood imagination took me into the realm of elves. The above-ground roots of trees were elf couches, sofas, and more! This all took place in a post-WWII apartment complex in Washington, D.C. Fortunately, D.C. has many more trees and green areas than most people imagine.

  4. I must comment again! There was one particular tree at the head of our post-WWII apartment complex, which I loved to climb. Although it was “just” a tree, it was a sailing ship to me. I thought of it as having sails, similar to those on ships in the late 16th century. It’s amazing to me, when I think back, that I always saw the tree with an imaginary “overlay” of sails in my childhood mind.

  5. Yvonne, I was co-founder and contributor way back for a bloggers group called “Ecotone.” We wrote towards “assignments” that had to do with the role of place. One memorable writing was about “trees and place” and every contributor had a memory similar to yours. Wonder how trees play into the nature of children today? Likely not much. And what you don’t “see” you don’t care for. What you don’t care for, you won”t protect.

    We once needed trees in our young lives, and really never forget that. And old tree stumps and vacant lots and rock piles and marshy margins and…

  6. My small town Pennsylvania childhood included “secret hiding places” all over the neighborhood. Most favored were those spots where shrubbery grew close to foundations of outbuildings — garages, carriage houses, barns — for those were truly secret! It warmed my heart when my grandson (who lives in a small town in Washington) told me tales of a “fort” he and his father discovered when walking up the hill behind their home, evidence that 21st century kids might still cultivate the fertile ground of imagination in nature.

  7. I had so much fun along the Tennessee River, flowing by at the end of my block in Knoxville, TN. There was also a cave with bats, an abandoned quarry to climb in a block from my suburban house, bike rides for miles around the suburb, a park with trees to climb, a hilly half-acre yard for our bodies to roll down to the street. All this for me from age 8 on. School was a bike ride, too. What a fabulous childhood!