Hello all! I have just returned to Kathmandu after spending the last week-and-a-bit in a rural village called Gatlang. I first travelled through Gatlang right before Christmas when trekking the Tamang Heritage Trail, and have since harboured a bit of a crush on its isolation, natural splendour, and kind people. When in Gatlang the first time, I stayed at the Parpati Kunda Home Stay, with Tashi Lama, Reyjalmo, and their five daughters: Phurpo Mendo (14), Sita (11), Dawa Mendo (eight), Phurpo Dolmo (four) and Nima (eight-months-old). They were one of the most lovely families I have ever been fortunate enough to meet.
While staying with Tashi, his two brothers, Anil and Santosh, said they were interested in creating a website for the home stay and the village, but had no idea how to do it. Long story short, that’s why I was in Gatlang again. Many posts will be written over the coming days about my time spent there – expanded versions of essays and ramblings scribbled in my Moleskine, pages curled by the heat of the fire. In the meantime, though, here’s the first on a concept we all know and love: playtime.
Back at home, I think we’re doing playtime all wrong.
I’m coming at this not as a mother or a teacher or an older sister of a small sibling, but as someone who used to have a hell of a time playing. Inside, outside, in the bush, on the rocks – when I was a kid, playtime was dirty and creative. Knees looked like battle zones; scars from running (and subsequently tripping) with Popsicles, legs bruised and bumped from too many sessions of hide-and-go-seek tag. We were The Generation of kids right before the Internet became a household name. As such, we experienced recess, after school neighbourhood play dates, and long summer evenings in a way that did not involve Farmville or an early onset of carpal tunnel from smart phones. It helped that my parents were adamantly opposed to anything that resembled a game console (“but mooooom, how am I ever going to get better at Donkey Kong?!”) and that I remember them having to make a suspicious number of phone calls just as I got connected to my dial-up internet-enabled Neopets account.
Point is: when I was a kid, playtime was more free. That sounds stupid, and it’s hard to explain, but it’s true. Yes we had some play equipment in our school yards, but for the most part, we were left to our own devices to create something to do. Hence the climbing of icy rocks to train for my future Everest summit attempt, the use of dead trees at an old Macleod Public School (Sudbury reference, folks) as teeter-totters, etc. etc. The most fun I remember having at recess was when in grade three, for a number of consecutive lunch hours, my friends and I pretended to be cats, and ran on all four through the bush area next to my elementary school.
Playtime was messier, but it sent our imaginations to other places, it created bonds between kids, and it taught us that if we fell over and scraped our elbows, we needed to get back up again.
Maybe I’m out-of-touch with the reality of playground politics today, but it seems to me as though kids in the Western world aren’t having so much fun anymore. Or maybe it’s that the idea of fun has been redefined, to include concepts like iPhone emojis and Facebook. Whatever it is, playtime seems less focused on the imagination/collective side of things, and more based on established-play-structure/individual ideals.
Now that we have that rant out of the way, please accompany me to Gatlang, where, as I mentioned, I have just spent a week surrounded by a household and village of young children.
I was looking forward to returning to Gatlang for many reasons, but one of the main ones was to see the Lama family again. I had all but adopted Phurpo Dolmo, the four-year-old, last time around. We had worked up such a playtime rapport that she insisted on calling me “ama,” which means “mom” in Nepali. In December, Phurpo Dolmo’s life revolved around a single yellow balloon.
When I returned this time, I wanted to bring something for Phurpo Dolmo and the rest of Tashi’s daughters. Hidden in the zippered depths of my backpack was a 50-pack of balloons (I didn’t even have to buy them…turns out Marlon was carrying an extra bag!), as well as a large pad of drawing paper, crayons and pencil crayons that I got at a convenience store in Kathmandu.
That first night in Gatlang was a party, in the most innocent and heartwarming of ways. Each of the girls chose a balloon (all different colours, of course), and the fun that ensued was electric.
It was one of the most uninhibited and pure joys I have ever witnessed. Four children (Nima sat in Reyjalmo’s arms chewing on her balloon) laughing breathlessly as they try desperately to not let their newly-filled balloons touch the ground of their home. (When we were kids, my brother and I would pretend the carpet in our living room was balloon-consuming lava. Turns out the stakes are raised when there is a legitimate risk of your balloon landing in the large fire hearth used to cook meals.) The happiness and energy in that room was contagious. We had to start tying the inflated balloons with a string because the kids wanted to inflate/deflate them so many times.
The next day, word had spread amongst the children of Gatlang. I woke up to a yard filled with kids, all yelling “one balloon!!” whenever they saw me. Soon, there were balloons everywhere. I felt like I could have done a census on the number of children in Gatlang based on the number of balloons doled out.
Walking around the village later in the afternoon, every kid I saw had a balloon dangling from their lips, huffing and puffing into it, and subsequently letting it go, the coloured piece of latex spiralling through the air and into the dirt. I was amazed by how something so simple could keep kids entertained for such a long period of time.
Over the next few days, I witnessed many more examples of what I consider “real” playtime: Tashi’s daughters colouring on a pad of paper, rather than an iPad; Phurpo Dolmo’s afternoons spent successfully convincing me to pick her up and spin her around like a merry-go-round. A favourite game involved me sitting, either Phurpo Dolmo or Dawa Mendo on my lap, while we pretended they were on a roller coaster, me making creaky wooden roller coaster sounds as I slowly moved the kids “uphill” and sent them plummeting over the precipice of the imagined peak. On the last night, the girls fashioned toys out of single shoelaces and pieces of wood they had found out front.
It was playtime free of the liability worries that stifle playtime at home. It was playtime where children wave pieces of firewood like swords, and where mud and rocks may not be the same as a swing and slide, but kids make do. Parents aren’t always watching like hawks (not to mention hovering like helicopters), not because they don’t care, but because they trust their kids and know that a few minor bumps and bruises aren’t a cause for concern, but rather a valuable lesson. Fantastical games and stories flourish in a playtime that’s not constrained by fences and rules.
The Western playgrounds of today are literally designed to minimize liability – can we please stop trying to architect fun, and instead just let it happen organically? This is a plea to stop blanching school yards of trees, rocks, hiding spots; kids are meant to climb and jump and leap, and yes, sometimes even get hurt. Maybe I will feel differently when I’m a parent, but I believe the best play-thing you can give a kid is an imagination.
In Gatlang the kids are scrappier. The hands and clothes and faces are so dirty. But the laughs and smiles come generously. Creative and innovative. Simple.
It’s playtime, the way playtime is meant to be. Children, as children are meant to be.