Childhood games lead to lasting love of parks

Lauren Puckett

Growing up, I always had an uncanny ability for imaginary games. I had an entire collection of Barbies, but I hardly touched them; they were too simple. If I played with the Barbies, I wanted to be the Barbie, and not just a normal one — an FBI Barbie, with superpowers, fairy wings and spy goggles. I grew up directing my playmates about the confines of my basement: turning couch into castle and stairwell into storybook garden.

And while my basement was a satisfactory imagination station, I loved it when my family would pack up the Ford Explorer and head to Rock Quarry or Bethel Park.

It was at the park that I could let my legs and my mind run free, pretending the wood chips in my shoes were stolen files from a top-secret criminal headquarters. The trees became fairy schoolhouses, every branch a different classroom. The slides were tunnels that took me from Saturn to Venus in an instant. The smooth pebbles served as my currency, a method of payment when I purchased mud pies and stick spoons from the other children.

As the years passed, I changed, and so did the parks, in the odd, subtle way that inanimate objects do. I aged and stopped asking why so many cigarettes littered the gravel. I played fewer games of hide-and-seek, having long figured out all the good spots available. I held hands with a boy for the first time, hiding among the tires of Rock Quarry Park, glad the shadows concealed my blushing cheeks.

Eventually, the wood chips in my shoes became nuisance rather than pleasure. I saw the trees as lovely figures, but they ceased to contain fairy schoolhouses. The slides were too small for my body, and I could no longer fly. The park was there and it was home, but a home for an older Barbie, one who had responsibilities and less imagination.

But one sunny May afternoon, I took a friend’s son to Bethel Park. He was four years old and as mischievous as little boys can be.

He dragged me behind him from the swing to the see-saw, and I slowly rediscovered the roots of my imagination.

He took me to the slide. Chewing on his lower lip, he couldn’t decide what he wanted to do. He was beginning to outgrow the slide; it was getting too “boring.”

An old trick sparked in my mind, an old trick of Bethel’s creation, and I smiled.

“Well,” I told him, “How about we stop sliding?”

He looked at me with genuine interest, the kind you rarely see in adults. What could I be talking about? What idea did I have in mind? He waited, as I glanced up to the top of the slide and back at him.

My smile turned to a grin.

“How about we take a trip to Venus?”

And Bethel took us there.

By Lauren Puckett