For part of my childhood I lived with my parents and sister in a small two bedroom apartment. I spent a lot of time outside. In winter I would pretend to be Ernest Shackleton trekking across the vastness of Antarctica. In summer I would kill ants in the community rock garden or hang out at the large sandbox nearby.
With just two Dinky cars and a few plastic army men, I could occupy myself for hours sitting in that pile of sand. There were often several children playing in this simple rectangular structure. As I remember the apartment’s sandbox had four partially buried perimeter walls made of 2X10 lumber. Each corner was topped with a small triangle of plywood providing support for the structure and handy as a seat. To have a corner spot was a coveted position in what I came to learn as the hierarchy of the sandbox.
First child to arrive could claim a corner seat. If a parent came with their child, the adult got a seat. The centre of the sandbox usually had a small hill that kids who liked to play together occupied. If a parent was present things were quiet and order existed. I clearly recall being banished from the sandbox one day because I loudly said that a new kid had ‘big ears’ before realizing her mother was sitting nearby.
Without an adult, any group larger than two children required negotiations. Lines were drawn in the sand. What was learned in the sandbox never just stayed in the sandbox because the lessons remained with you for a lifetime. Allies were made. Bullies had to be dealt with. I learned kindness when someone uncovered one of my favourite Tonka trucks which I thought I had lost forever. I learned to share space with complete strangers. When no one was around I learned how to enjoy my own company.
When I bought my first house and was expecting my second child, I built a sandbox in anticipation. I chose a square shape to suggest the closeness I wished for my children. My wife insisted that I make a cover for it so that the neighbour’s cat wouldn’t think it was for his use only. I made the corner triangles a bit larger than I remembered to better accommodate my larger size. I loaded beach sand, which I raided from a nearby lake, into the back of my Chevy Blazer, making several trips before I was satisfied I had enough for my boys’ sandbox.
I became the father of three boys who, like their dad, learned how to take care of their toys, look after each other, use their imagination and value time alone. Eventually they helped me add to their backyard play area by constructing a ramshackle collection of wood bits, bicycle parts and lengths of rope they called ‘The Climbing Thing’. Jumping off the top of the structure into the soft security of the sandbox became their funnest activity.