Several days ago I found myself braving the withering summer heat and humidity to take my 6-year-old niece and 4-year-old nephew for a walk. I’m not sure why I thought going for a walk in that sort of weather was a good idea; perhaps I felt I needed a little excitement in my day. The fact is, I’ve discovered that taking walks with little ones always ends up as something of an adventure. Children, you see, aren’t as afflicted by the bored sort of familiarity with which all adults regard their normal, every day surroundings. Going on a walk is a sort of philosophical recreation, a stepping outside to get a look at the world; that, of course, also makes going on a walk the perfect time for children to demonstrate their own fresh way of looking at everything. I love to switch roles with them; to let them play the teacher to me, so they can tell me all about life and why things are the way they are.
Case in point: as we passed one of my neighbor’s lawns, I pointed out to them an obvious object of interest: an electric-blue garden ball, perched on a stand next to a tree.
“What’s that?” I asked them.
“It’s a ball,” they sagaciously replied.
“But what is it doing there?”
They pondered a minute. Said the six-year-old, “Maybe somebody lost it.”
“But what is it? What’s it for?”
“Maybe…” the four-year old said, thinking hard, “Maybe it’s a bird–no, a bird bath! It’s for the birds, it’s a bird bath!”
While secretly I agreed that garden balls are “for the birds,”, I merely said: “Hey, you’re right, it is sitting in a bird bath. But what is the ball there for?”
“I think the ball is sticky, and it got stuck to the bird bath. That’s why it’s there.”
“No, no, no!” Said the six-year-old, who happens to be a master at puzzles and “find the one that doesn’t belong” games, “It doesn’t belong there! It doesn’t go next to a tree!”
This sparked an argument about whether the ball was stuck there or whether it was supposed to be there for the birds as a sort of nest or shelter. There are, however, a million more interesting things than garden balls on any walk, so the conversation soon moved on to clouds that looked like dinosaurs, bugs on the road, birds that flew by, etc.
When I go for a walk with children I can’t help but feel as if, in their minds, we are on some epic journey: we deliberately leave our home only to come back to it again, braving mad perils and climbing mountains along the way. They spot a car four blocks down the road and announce firmly that we have to stay out of the way, as if it were a giant or a monster; they dash to the safety of the grass crying “Look out!” They point out squished frogs as evidence of the menace cars pose to all things on the road. They spot mysterious markings on the pavement, arrows meant to indicate water meters, and eagerly race forward to find the next ones as if they were a series of all-important clues in a treasure hunt. The blue plastic squares put on the roads by the firemen are also objects of interest and speculation. They point out tiny details and things too big for adults to see. When we near the end of our journey, they try to espy our house from afar like weary adventurers returning home. And–perhaps this is where they are most wise–when they do catch sight of home, they race toward it, without fearing that it is too hot or too far for running.
I’ve given this weekly column a rather pretentious-sounding title from King Lear, but really, that two-word title fits no one better than the little ones I know. With innocence and wonder, they view the world through the untarnished window of childhood; they see everything the way God made it. They puzzle out the secrets of the universe; they dare to ponder the very plans of Providence. They are more objective than any scientist; more reasonable than any rationalist. They are quicker to see absurdity than adults who have grown to accept absurdity as normal in society–like glass garden balls. And they are wiser for the wonder that pervades their view of life. They ask why, and how, and if things are always that way. They take upon themselves the mystery of things, as if they were God’s spies.