Last week, we discovered that the huge catalpa tree in the yard of the house just north of us (which is currently vacant and owned by the community development corp. that I work for) is completely hollow inside.

So hollow that one adult and several children can fit inside it!  So our kids and a lot of their neighborhood friends have been enjoying climbing in and out of the tree.   To get into the tree you have to climb up to the large, northward facing branch.  Here are our kids sitting in the hole that goes down into the tree:

From this hole, you lower yourself down into the hollow cavity.  An adult or older kid has to help the smaller children get in and out.   There is a little hole on the south side of the tree, and it is just big enough to put your face up to or stick a hand out of, either of which makes for a surreal sight!

The inside of the tree has the size and feel of a cave shaft — except, of course, being surrounding by rotting wood instead of stone.  Unfortunately, I am too big to get in and out of the tree, but our friend Brent Aldrich is able to get in (though its a tight fit around his shoulders), and we handed him a camera and he was able to take the following pictures.  The girl in the second picture is our friend and neighbor Harmony who is really good at getting into the tree and helping other kids to get in and out.

This tree has been an exciting find for our kids and for many others, and we will enjoy it while we can.  Being so hollow, this tree does pose a threat to the house whose yard it is in, and also to a number of power and phone lines (including ours), so it will have to come down eventually.

I have posted a bunch more photos of kids exploring this tree to my facebook page, but using this link anybody should be able to view them.

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All this snow that we’ve had recently — including several more inches this morning — and our kids’s desire to be out playing in it has given me an opportunity to think anew about the role of play in urban naturalism and in our lives in general.

What do I mean by “play”?  Play is creative, spontaneous and collaborative engagement with one’s surroundings.   Play is creative in that the imagination of the participants is only minimally constrained by mutual agreements and by the appropriate demands of propriety and safety.  People, objects and plotlines are freely imagined and sometimes creative substitutions are made (this stick becomes a sword, that bag becomes a hat).  Play is spontaneous in that the structure and/or “rules” are not detemrined beforehand.  Finally, play is collaborative in that if there are multiple people involved, it does not become a competitive event.  A game of pick-up soccer, which undoubtedly would be fun for many people, is not play by this definition.  (Additionally, I think many of the recreational activities of adults from shopping to video games to sports leagues are by this criteria not play).  The American Academy of Pediatrics has issued a recent clinical report in which they conclude:

“Play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth. Play also offers an ideal opportunity for parents to engage fully with their children.”

Despite the benefits of play, it has been my experience in mainstream American culture that as we mature into adulthood, we are socially formed to wean ourselves off of play.  Some social scientists have described play as a child’s work (E.g., Vivian Gussey Paley, A Child’s Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play), and while I understand that the nature of play changes as become older and take on additional responsibilities, I think it is unfortunate that we tend to lose our ability to play.  Tom Hodgkinson, whose work I’ve discovered only recently, has had similar realizations about our inability to play, out of which he started “The Idler” magazine and now has written a couple of books on idleness ( most notably How To Be Idle, and most recently The Idle Parent — not yet available in the US.)  He said the following in an interview:

“Idleness for me is not a giving up on life but a spirited grabbing hold of it. I was idle when faced with wage slavery, i.e., doing boring work for somebody else at times of their choosing, in return for money. In that situation, I would become very lazy. But idleness really consists of doing stuff which is not really recognized as productive behaviour in our profit-driven economies. I might look as if I am lying in bed, but in fact I am turning ideas over. Often I get good ideas in the bath, when I am perfectly relaxed and my mind is flowing freely. And now that I am in control of my own work, I find that I am quite productive. Since retiring from the world five years ago, I have written three books, edited twelve more, written countless articles, run a small magazine from home, and had time left over to play a role in our local community, teaching ukulele at the local school, for instance, and to play with our children. In general I work from nine am till 1, and the rest of the day is for sleeping, outdoor work, walking, playing, cleaning, etc.”

So, we’ve had all this snow recently, and our kids — especially Miriam — have been so excited to go out and play in it and Jeni and I have gone out several times with them.  One evening, the kids and I played for a long time on the mounds of snow that had been plowed up in the church parking lot.   Some other kids had dug tunnels in the mounds earlier in the day and our kids loved that and I helped them dig a new tunnel.

On Sunday afternoon, all five of us spent awhile outside building a snowman, which the kids had never done before (The last couple of winters have been too warm for much snow.)  The kids all loved making the snowman and Miriam had the idea of using black olives for the eyes and mouth.   Playing together in the snow is fun for all of us, and the kids are learning to enjoy the wintry weather.