Baby Bucket List

Is it work? Is it play? Or is it something else entirely?

I watched a toddler ponder a recliner in front of her. Obviously new to the walking game, she noticed the chair was pulled far enough away from the wall that she could walk completely around it. Apparently, circumnavigation runs deep in the human psyche.

She proceeded to make her way—teetering but methodical—around the chair and back to where she started. She admired her handiwork for a moment, then took off for a brightly colored toy in the middle of the playroom. Now she could cross “walk around the big, blue chair” off her Baby Bucket List.

I’m extremely fond of my five grandnephews and grandnieces, who live in Connecticut. I’ve watched them all grow since infancy (there’s a set of 7-year-old triplets sandwiched between a 10- and a 4-year-old). The energy level is indescribable and relentless. Visits there are like being inside a nuclear chain reaction. When I leave, following a long weekend, the ringing in my ears doesn’t settle down until long after I’ve crossed the George Washington Bridge, at which point I swear again to wear a protective cup the next time I visit.

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By watching these five at play (on those rare occasions when I’m not the punch-toy object of that play), I think I’ve learned something about kids’ brains—namely, what we call play is not play to them. It’s work—little-kid work that has purpose, structure, goals and a sense of achievement waiting at the end.

You can see it in the intensity of their eyes, that singular focus to get whatever it is done—and done right. They brook no interruption; they remain focused and engaged until they’ve achieved whatever it was they sought to achieve. Then, of course, they must show it off to you as a formal record of that achievement.

They approach all such work completely voluntarily and with brimming enthusiasm and confidence. But assign them some form of play not of their own choosing, and just watch the enthusiasm plummet and the resistance rise. Somewhere along the line, working adults have lost that childhood secret to loving their work.

Now, of course, there is a kid version of play to go along with all that serious work. In the case of the Five Stooges, that generally consists of simultaneously hurling themselves at full bore into various areas of my anatomy.

I’ve noticed something else about the kid brain, too: the tendency for them to become fixated on the most insignificant minutiae—say a box or packing popcorn—followed by sudden illogical outbursts of sheer joy or irrational rage. Add the certain unsteadiness of just learning to walk and uncontrolled laughter over nothing in particular, and you have a perfect example of a brain that is drunk.

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It’s why you don’t give alcohol to young kids; they’ve already had enough, and they produce it naturally. (It’s also why you don’t let babies and young children operate motor vehicles.)

Quite literally, babies are drunk on life. Somewhere along the way, adults seem to have lost their way in this regard, as well.

Parents think it’s their duty to teach their children well. It’s actually the other way around. Babies can teach us a great deal about keeping bucket lists simple, turning work into play, and getting plastered on life.

And then, for fun, we can learn to run headlong into each other for no reason at all. Try it next time at the office and see for yourself.

Reid Champagne’s wife says his latest column really explains a lot.

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