Go Play Outside and Build a Beach House


Once I gave my three younger kids a bucket of big nails and a hammer and told them to go make a life raft from wood they could find on the beach. I watched from our porch. The gathering, the lining up, the arguing, the hammering, the deciding that nails alone were inadequate. Rope was needed. I gave them rope and then sat down again. I like watching other people’s industry even if they are just children.

The construction took hours. It occurred to me that my kids were probably leaving nails all over the beach where passers-by, intently looking for agates, would happen upon the rusty nails and think they’d washed up from an ancient Lake Superior shipwreck. My Home Depot nails were destined for Lake Superior still lifes, dioramas of the old logging life, hammered into jewelry, sported by eco-tourists who could not bear to waste a single piece of metal.

What I loved about my kids making the life raft was how intent they were about it. Well, one of them was intent, the other two lost interest after a while when the implications of there being only one hammer became clear. One hammer. One hammerer. It didn’t have to be that way especially if I intervened to remind them to take turns. But, to me, the essence of building a life raft was that folks were pretty much on their own.

The hammerer in this case called me down to the beach to witness the launch. Now the others came back to help, thinking maybe they could ride on the raft even though they’d bailed on the construction. Even in their leaving of the project they had made the effort the centerpiece of the day. Which was sort of my mission accomplished. Go play outside sometimes needs to have definition to it, like go play outside and take apart that old car or go play outside and build a clubhouse out of paper bags.

Do something you haven’t done before.

Do something that is utterly purposeless. Something that just takes up time and allows you to hammer nails. Build something that won’t last and doesn’t have a prayer of floating.

Do something that couldn’t possibly be construed as a means to any end.

I didn’t do that enough for my kids. I was always into educational games. They mocked me for it. I played tapes of the multiplication tables in the car, we listened to books on tape when we traveled. I rented movies from the list of 100 Movies Your Kids Should Watch which had us watching Spartacus and The Sound of Music. Everything was a tutorial for later.

Today, while I was walking the beach, probably a good twenty years since the raft-making afternoon, I saw the beginnings of this elaborate beach house. Intricate. Somebody took a lot of time. Driftwood selected for its load-bearing capabilities; logs placed in V’s and padded with tree branches. And then left there, as finished as it was going to be.

Ah, I thought. What a fine thing to have here. This art for no reason. I wanted to stop walking and create something. A cairn of rocks built impossibly high or all with pink stones. But I couldn’t summon the purposelessness. It was just a memory and a distant one at that.

I want a hammer and some nails and maybe some rope and an endless afternoon where no one, especially me, knows what I’m doing or why.

And I want to think of nothing else but what I’m doing at that moment and when I’m done, I want to walk away and turn around just once. And then leave it.

5 Comments on “Go Play Outside and Build a Beach House

  1. Don’t you find writing is often like that? Or maybe that’s just me. I have no grand projects with my writing. Just an itch that never ends. And so when I sit down to write, often it never leaves the notebook. It had no purpose other than to scratch the itch.

  2. I love this post Jan. It evokes so many feelings & memories of not only my childhood, but of my children’s as well. Somewhere along the way, we seem to have lost the art of just playing!

  3. When my boys were young – the first summer after their dad and I split – they built a tree house out of materials gleaned from our shed. It turned into a neighborhood endeavor and gave them an escape from the hard things that were happening at the time. It’s amazing what a few nails and a hammer can do for a kid, or an adult for that matter.

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