John Valentine chalks up messy play experience to toddler “science”

October 5, 2013 


John Valentine.


When our children were babies and toddlers, after lullabies and readings of “Moo Baa La La La” and “Goodnight Moon,” my wife and I would crawl around the living room floor, putting away the story of our lives, a love story of time and place indeed.

Puzzle pieces, blocks, Legos, games, stuffed animals, tutus, pillows, Play-Doh and quilts would all get boxed up, folded up and tucked away, ready for the next day’s adventures.

To keep our sanity and sense of humor, my wife and I developed a code for some of the messier play, requiring more participatory clean-up. We would look at each other, nod our heads, and recite the family get-out-of-jail card: “science.”

Science might be trimming a doll’s long hair (or one’s own bangs). Science might be wearing two dresses to school, one on top of another. Science might be dropping the goldfish in the toilet after feeling how soft its tail was.

Science was about exploring and baby-step risks. Science often involved water and dog food, glitter and food coloring. Science might involve a cookie recipe and many measuring spoons. Muffin tins, glue guns and paper towels were always close by. Science was about potions and fairy dust.

The girls just wanted to see for themselves. As the kids got older, their experiential education got wider, destinations broader and more diverse. “Science” was getting too real.

I had to reign in my usual first response. In their teenage years, “let’s ask Dad,” morphed into “don’t tell Dad,” accompanied by a whisper and wink. My predictable, safety-first comments earned me the nickname “Mr. No.” Through driving lessons, last-minute sleepovers, proms, beach trips, bungee jumps and New Year’s Eves, they could recite my cautions before we even started the conversation.

Their eyes rolled at the breakfast table as I read aloud from the daily paper, news reports my kids called “the-girl-who stories” of the dangerous world beyond our driveway.

Sometimes it was hard for me just to let “science” happen; the knee-jerk guarded frown too easily became my default.

I was reminded of all this ancient but seems-like-it-was-yesterday history when my now-urban, oldest daughter came to town last weekend. As usual she had an agenda, plans for all of us. She and her husband wanted to cook us dinner (panko! quinoa!) and a hearty breakfast. She wanted to cross the creek with the dogs. She wanted to see if the chickens would eat tent caterpillars that were infesting nearby dogwoods and sourwoods. She wanted to pick blueberries.

And she wanted to plant garlic. “Garlic, honey?” I said, with the word “science” in a thought balloon. Yup, she’d read online that now was a good time to plant, and she wanted to come back in the late spring for the harvest.

So that’s what we did. Side by side, together on our hands and knees like the old days, we dug a bed in the garden, mixed in some fresh compost, split handfuls of bulbs into individual cloves, planted them all, roots down, tucked them in with soft dirt and mulch and watered our plot. A few days later the green shoots were exploding out of the cooling soil.

The energy of millennials is daunting and contagious. My leaned-in daughter and her husband were driving back the next day, but she still wanted do a run, wash the car, do laundry and feed the chickens tent caterpillars – or at least see what would happen in the coop. Earlier, I had reminded her that chickens will take a peck at anything that moves. They love nothing better than to chase worms, ants, spiders, insects, even little mice. She wanted to see for herself, so off we went into the woods to cut off an infested branch wrapped in that dense, gauzy cocoon.

The walk back through the woods was surreal. There we were, gingerly parading down a trail gently waving a 6-foot frond of raging caterpillars. We wanted to keep the silky, gray cloud intact. Squeezing through the coop door, we placed the entire experiment on the chicken’s favorite roost. And the rest was science.

Curious but wary at first, the chickens strutted and clucked all around their sudden extraterrestrial visitor. Then they dug in and investigated. By evening, most of the offending caterpillar nests were torn apart. Any young moths quickly made their nocturnal getaways through the chicken wire fencing.

In a whirl, the next morning my daughter was gone. We packed their car with snacks.

I check the garlic daily. It may just be coincidence, but a few days later the chickens laid the most eggs ever.


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