I stood on the edge of Walden Pond, watching my boys play. We’d spent a long day touring around Revolutionary War sites nearby, and the boys were thrilled to stop for a bit and have some freedom to run and explore.
Little Man waded in the water, squishing the sand between his toes and splashing around. His younger brother sat in the sand, looking out across the lake. The late afternoon sun sparkled on the water and warmed our faces.
I should have brought some shovels and buckets for them to play with, I thought to myself, wishing I had planned ahead better (although I’m not sure where sand toys would have fit in our luggage on a cross-country flight).
Then I looked down and saw my baby happily examining rocks and digging with driftwood. And a little voice inside said, he doesn’t need a shovel. He made his own.
And I laughed to myself as I realized where I was. Walden. Where Henry David Thoreau had gone to escape the complexities of the world–to see what he could learn by whittling down his life to only the most essential things.
I get the message, Henry.
They didn’t need any toys. They only needed the limitless possibilities of nature, the freedom to explore, and their own imaginations.
So I continued to watch as my baby wandered the shore, picking up interesting rocks and watching them plop into the water, giggling at the splashes. I watched as Little Man buried his feet in the sand and then wriggled them to the surface…over and over. I listened to the birds and the breeze in the trees, suddenly grateful that I didn’t have cell phone reception or a book or anything else to distract me from enjoying the purity of this moment.
Thoreau wrote in his book about his experience at Walden:
“My greatest skill in life has been to want but little.”
Sometimes, it’s so tempting to think that if we just find the perfect toy, or activity, or whatever gimmick, our kids will be happy and occupied and life will be good. And while there is certainly a place for toys and activities, the truth I’m discovering is that often the best toy I can give them is the opportunity to create their own enjoyment. To examine the world around them and to imagine a whole new world into existence.
That day, completely by accident, I gave my boys the best toy ever…absolutely nothing. And they taught me a lesson…as they so often do…that simple is best.