Unlock play in the ugly places

The small nature preserve is marked by a tiny sign off the side of the road — blink and you’d miss it. It’s a small parcel of dirt and trees that winds behind homes and backyards, an ordinary spot that would never be described as scenic. No one is here, because there’s not that much to recommend it. It’s perfect.

One of the hardest things about parenting during a pandemic is finding a way to get my kids outdoor exercise. My family has been lucky enough to have had good health during this crisis, so we’re left muddling through the rest of it: social isolation, financial insecurity, homeschooling. We’ve relocated from our small apartment into a relative’s small house so that my kids can have daily access to a backyard. And yet, my two active boys, who have been cut off from their friends and normal social outlets, still need open space to run and explore.

And so we’ve become connoisseurs of all the third-rate grass patches and wooded areas we can find in our area. No scenic public beaches or stately parks for us; those that aren’t closed attract too many other people looking for an outdoor outlet, and we’re serious about social distancing. Our kids are more than happy to climb trees and tromp through muck on a lot that abuts a warehouse or runs up against a chain link fence next to someone’s backyard. And often, in these places, we are able to find facsimiles of playgrounds -- dead trees become jungle gyms, other dead trees become slides. 

Now, when I’m driving to the grocery store or taking a neighborhood walk, I keep my eyes peeled for the tiny, ugly patches of nature that can be sites of  fruitful exploration and playtime. And I know I’m not the only one. Because it’s not unusual for us to find evidence of other children’s play during our outdoor explorations — branches leaned against a tree trunk like a teepee, boards angled to create makeshift bike jumps. It makes me feel like we’re together, even when we’re apart.