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.