Memoir – My experience of play as a child with my siblings compared to that of my own children, and particularly my child with a disability.
We were sitting around a fire on a chilly Canberra evening when I shared some old memories with my kids. My ten-year-old daughter had asked me about my childhood. So, I spoke of the bedroom I shared with two of my sisters – a welcome comfort on stormy nights or after a trying day at school. I told them about the chores I was responsible for – drying dishes, collecting eggs, gathering wood, hanging laundry, and generally helping on my parents’ farm. And of course, I mentioned some of the activities my siblings, cousins and I enjoyed for play.
As I grew up in the country, I recalled that many of the activities I shared with my sisters involved the countryside. We made cubby houses out of old logs, scrap metal and limestone. We went on ‘nature walks’, collecting bits of moss, interesting stones and leaves in a glass jar. We built a mini makeshift treehouse with an old ladder, palings and rope.
In school holidays, we played Monopoly for days with my cousins when they visited. We walked along the railroad track and took minutes picking solitary confectionary items in turn for our paper bags of mixed lollies. One time, my cousin and I made ‘Moilas’ cheese snacks (termed so in a combination of my name and his).
With my sisters, I built Lego houses using my imagination, inspired by real-life architecture. With friends, I talked and listened to music. Alone, I read countless books, curled in an old armchair next to the fire, undercover with my emergency ‘pillow torch’, and when that was confiscated, by a small nightlight or by a crack of light coming through the doorway.
During the July school holidays just passed, I spied my 12 and 10-year-old daughters build a cubby from sheets and blankets. I observed my 15-year-old son spend hours playing League of Legends online with his friends. I also watched them play ‘Cheat’ with cards, and at times their dad or I joined them.
On weekends, my daughters idle by watching episodes of Dance Academy or H20. I am pleased when they decide to practice dance moves, or create art, or bake together, and they have time for their separate interests as well. My 12-year-old dances, and experiments with clothes designs and baking; my 10-year-old plays sports, and challenges herself physically after watching demonstration clips on YouTube. And of course, they play with friends. My son’s recreation also mostly involves his friends: either online, or hanging out in real life playing games like Cards Against Humanity or more classic card games. My husband and I have fun sharing ideas and making plans together, or hosting or attending social events with friends – and on a more mundane level, we have a Canberra Times Quiz tradition. At times all five of us play charades at the insistence of the youngest.
And meanwhile, our oldest daughter mostly plays alone – and not because she reads.
She is not quite adult, yet she derives enjoyment from banging a tambourine. She likes to move in narrow gaps between our dining chairs and a bookcase, or the piano and the sofa. Her recreation is completely unstructured. There are no catch ups with friends, online or otherwise. In truth, I am not completely sure what her play is.
It’s hard to know when so little is known about her disability. Even after more than a decade and a half, we have no real diagnosis. We only know that part of her brain is under-developed, which means she has a neurological disability. This manifests in difficulties controlling her body, so she has significant muscle weakness and uses a wheelchair. It also means she has major communication issues. And that makes play much more complicated.
Our other children spend hours trying to include her in their activities. They have demonstrated time and again a willingness to make sure she is part of our family life. My son has not necessarily tried to include her in his activities, but I notice when he lays next to her, or tickles her, or teases her by putting things she seeks slightly out of her reach. My 12-year-old styles her hair, and delights in watching her enjoy lovingly baked treats. My 10-year-old sits directly in front of my her face, and makes a game out of whatever she can: blowing breaths at each other, imitating noises, clapping hands. But sometimes, their sister makes it clear that she wants to be alone.
When they were toddlers, they didn’t understand that their sister was not able to play with them as they did with others. It was a painful kind of letting go when my husband and I watched each of them, in turn, realise that their sister was not like most other people. It was hard for them, too.
And at times, it still is. They show feats of physicality or craftsmanship to an audience member who frequently does not respond. They talk to someone who does not talk back; who often does not register that they have said something (though I suspect that’s part of the appeal sometimes). They cannot engage in the kind of play they otherwise might have with their sister.
So while I am glad to reflect on my childhood, and watch all my children living theirs, there is a little sting. Where childhood play will become memories for most of us, my daughter will, in many ways, always remain child-like.
Image: Steven Depolo