Entertaining children successfully and safely requires, as veterans may have learned the hard way, thoughtful preparation. And a few essential tools.  

Wait.  Scratch that.  Sometimes, you might get away with just one tool. 

It may be the oldest toy known to children, yet it offers new opportunities every time it is clutched by young, eager hands.

It works in the yard, on the porch, and sometimes, with certain essential governance, even inside the house.  It requires no batteries or charging, and stands ready for use at all times.  It travels well to other locations—the pool, the friend’s house, the picnic.  You probably already have one, stuck away somewhere.

It is more appealing to some children than others, but always appealing to every child at some point or another.  It comes in eons of sizes and colors, requires no instructions, is essentially unbreakable, and stands up remarkably well to repeated abuse.  It can be had cheaply and purchased just about anywhere.

The virtues of this tool go on.  It sparks imagination and creativity, assuming different forms in new contexts without actually changing.  It inspires ultimate collaboration in new games, then fierce arguments over the outcome.  It provides a forum for children to boss adults around, when the rules of a game can be invented as you go.

How could something so simple be the catalyst for so many activities that are so complex?

Grandparents, pals, doting relatives, babysitters, camp staffers, after-school stalwarts; all the child-amusing population knows it as the universal item that never fails to deliver.

It’s a ball.

Oh, sure, I hear you muttering.  Maybe in the longed-for days of yesteryear.  Now, you are assuming, the Effective Grandparent must be stocked with video games, youngster-level tablets, remote-controlled vehicles, transformers.  Well, perhaps, but this G-ma’s battlefield experience shows otherwise.  No single item holds the attention of the pint-sized like a ball.  

Not exactly an athlete, myself, I stumbled on this fundamental truth by accident, as with so many other things about these kids.  About a year ago, Buddy was goofing off out on the porch, where toys of various genre and interest were strewn around.  Suddenly, he spied something halfway hidden under a railing, snatched it up and held it aloft like a bass fisherman with the week’s biggest catch.  “What’s this?” he inquired, holding up a dirty, ragged tennis ball.  That’s a ball I was throwing for one of the dogs, I answered, surprised.  “Can I play with it?”  Well, sure, I said, glancing in puzzlement at all the other offerings he was abandoning, but he was off like a flash, bouncing it off walls and the porch floor, hurling it out into the grass and chasing it himself.  I watched, astonished.

A week or two later, always on the lookout for ways to refresh the Kiddo Bin at a modest investment level, I was sailing through the drugstore when I noticed a $5 bin with a package of three miniature balls in it, one each for basketball, soccer, and football.  Why not?

These were, to put it mildly, an instant hit.  Every characteristic appealed; the size, the color, the way they fit into small hands for hurling. 

Never one to let a good thing bounce away (forgive me), I recently added to the two large kickballs, one in each child’s favorite color.  These set me back a whopping $3.99 each, yet there is no price that could be placed on the scope of this success.    On a recent Saturday morning I sat on the porch with Sis, bravely navigating a series of rapid instructions on a game she delivered rather pointedly as we went:  “OK, Evie, throw it to me.  NOW, bounce it off the floor before I catch it.  NO, not that way, THIS way.  Now, dribble five times and throw it back.  Now, catch it with your arms up high!  Hahaha!  You missed!  I WINNED!”

What a kick (these puns just take control!) to know that something so accessible still rings the bell.  Other things from the bygone, simpler days still appeal, I’ve learned—bubbles are huge, squirt guns a seasonal favorite, and crayons and plain paper are infallible—but for sure-fire excitement, the ball has no peer.

If you worry about screen time, divert with a ball to inspire action.  If you need to wear them out before bedtime, same thing.  Want to give them a chance to show you something new?  Hand over the ball, and invite their instructions.

In our sports-mad culture, the language, the nuance around balls and games sinks in surprisingly soon, even if slightly wonky.  Last weekend in the neighborhood pool I stood (upon command) about eight feet from Buddy, waiting for him to toss me the ball.  He paused before throwing to shout urgently, “Evie!  Are you open?  Are you open?” This when nothing separated us but undisturbed water, I held nothing in my hands, and he could see my attention was riveted on him.  Still, we must follow form, right?  So I shouted and waved my hands high:  Throw it!  Hit me! I’m open! 

The brilliant German writer and statesman Goethe, whose cogent wisdom from centuries back remains relevant on so many deep matters, offered these observations about children:

“Correction does much, but encouragement does more.”

And:  “One must ask children and birds how cherries and strawberries taste.”

What fun to know, amidst all the other, weightier writings, that he also said this: 

“Happiness is a ball after which we run wherever it rolls, and we push it with our feet when it stops.”  

Two hundred years later, it’s as true as ever.

My best pal, a shiny, stunning “ginger,” as the British call redheads, is getting white on top.

Surely it has happened gradually, but I suddenly noticed it recently, in full force, for the first time. Staring at her across the room for the zillionth time as she dozed in the blissful sleep of the guiltless, I took a deep breath and thought: She looks Old.  She is Old.  It is time to admit that fact, and to get accustomed to it.  The chestnut red fur that covers her head and long, velvet ears has faded, at the dome of her chunky skull and around her relentless nose, to a heather mix of red dominated by white.

This short-legged, perennially sad-faced, red-and-white hound dog is approaching her birthday, when she will be 12.  She joined my little household by sheer happenstance (see that story here) when she was just seven weeks old, so she’s lived those dozen years rarely more than a few yards away from my feet—whether lumbering along the neighborhood sidewalks; gallumping in the Basset’s trademark, absurd gait, through happy lawns at the park; or dropping hopefully to the floor under the dinner table, where falling rewards so often come to those who wait.  Especially, as she never fails to discern, since the grandchildren have arrived.

We are regular features on the neighborhood sidewalks at prime dog-walking hours, for she considers a good walk spoiled if there are no neighbors to administer attention or other dogs with butts to sniff.  Lately, in these encounters, the neighbors often ask, “How old is she now?”  A fellow dog-lover in our family told me recently she refuses to answer that about her own dog, stoutly declining to tally up the years and acknowledge the passage of time.  Part of me understands and wants to adopt that approach, but the truth tends to earn my pal even more indulgent attention, so I usually opt for transparency.  It helps anoint her, you might say, as the Dowager Queen of the local four-footed populace.

She earns her title not just because of age, but because of who she is.  While bred to chase low-ground game over long miles of open fields in ancient France, and thus evolving for practical reasons, the Basset Hound is surely one of the canine world’s most comedic architectural achievements. Everyone laughs at the sad, droopy face, the massive front feet (and I do mean huge, as one paw entirely fills the palm of my hand), and the strangely thick limbs supporting a stout, muscular torso. Teaching a Basset to drop “down” on command is the easiest win of all dog-training, as the floor is but a few inches below, and such a happy destination for one who relaxes with such utter abandon.

The dozen years this Basset and I have shared began the year I turned 50.  While I often snicker sarcastically at the similar challenges inflicted on old dogs and women of a certain age, lately I’ve begun to think a lot about what a profound gift it is, the chance to grow old together, whether with your dog, your life partner, your friends, your family.  Maybe this dog was given to me, in part, to help me make peace with the passage of time in the way only a dog can do.

What might be learned from watching her change and adapt to being older, as the months crank inexorably forward?  How do dogs know, so instinctively, to accommodate what comes?  I’m sure I’m not the only dog lover to wish we could have an actual conversation.  A hound dog is the soul of exploration and discovery, focused only on whatever is beyond the next bend.  So, if she could verbalize, she’d probably disdain to reflect on aging.  I’ll have to settle for learning from her instincts, and from watching her actions.

As I do, I think:

Why hurry?  If we show intent and direction, maybe the world should learn to tolerate our slower pace.  If we get there when we get there, is anyone really worse off for it?

Patience may be the virtue that eases all other problems, at the roots.  Maybe it really, really is true, that learning to wait for what we want makes the arrival all the sweeter.  This one is a hard sell on me, the perennial, anxious pacer, but she inspires me to take a breath.  And then another.  And when you blend patience with the persistence in the marrow of the hound-dog bones, triumph is virtually inevitable.

Take your medicine. Trust those who say you should.  A little peanut butter may help.

A nap, no matter what length, makes all the world a better place.  It probably contributes materially to No. 2, above.  When in need, drop to the nearest surface, and let gravity have its way with the eyelids.  Life will resume its fervor, soon enough.

Even when age changes the world’s view of us, at certain times, our voice must still be heard.  Refer again to No. 2 above, but when the time comes, don’t hesitate.  One time, with clarity, from deep down in the heart and chest, may be enough to rivet the world on your point.  Save your effort until that’s really necessary.

Finally, in all circumstances, for all things, no matter where the trail may lead, keep your eyes on your beloved and never stray far from the cherished presence.  Keep eye contact whenever possible, for nothing else conveys what the eyes can say.  If you are lucky enough to lay your head on the cherished foot, or in the lap, or at the end of the outstretched arm, life offers nothing more sublime.  What can possibly matter more?