A version of this essay appears in the online collection of NPR's This I Believe essays.
We meet our friends at the beach every Tuesday at 10:00 am. Tuesday is our beach day. We pack a lunch and make a day of it. We really don't have that many Tuesdays each summer by the time school gets out in June to before it's back in session early September. So, we make our Tuesday beach days a priority. It doesn't even have to be sunny or particularly warm. As long as a shovel is within reach for the boys, the weather, or anything else for that matter, is hardly a concern.
The beach has a huge toy bin that houses anything from dump trucks to buckets to flotation devices. People bring their toys and leave them in the bin for their return visits or for others to enjoy. I also have a bag of beach toys that I carry in my trunk. It doesn't matter how many creative, ingenious new toys are stacked in my bag or in the toy bin, none can evoke the sheer giddiness of a plain, old shovel. Put a shovel in a boy's hands and he is transformed to a secret world of his own making.
My friend has two boys the exact same ages as mine so the four of them have countless hours of fun on our Tuesday outings. They laugh and play and swim and run, but the most fun they have, hands down, is with a shovel. We marvel at their ability to spend hours digging. They dig and dig and dig. They add water. They dig some more. They add more water. They make rivers that chart undiscovered territories, dams to thwart invasion attempts by mean pirates and innovative paths to outsmart the bad guys. A vivid imagination is a beautiful tool and the shovel its best collaborator.
I am amazed at the quality of play each boy has on our Tuesday jaunts. From morning until afternoon, with a break in between for lunch, the boys are doing what boys do best...conquering. Their feelings of supreme power and strength are evident on each sun-kissed face. As the big shovel gets passed from boy to boy the smiles and smirks and sneers give us a peek into his prowess. With a shovel in hand, anything is possible.
I don't know of any television show, video game, structured day camp, or classroom that can provide the kind of creative, resourceful education the boys dig up each Tuesday. In some form or another each boy is figuring out what his role is in their games of make-believe. Sometimes he wins, sometimes he loses. Sometimes his plans go through without a hitch, sometimes they don't. Sometimes he has to stop and consider the others feelings, sometimes he doesn't. But, most of the time, he is just having fun.
Isn't that what summer, and being a kid, is all about?