My earliest memories are garish and plastic. I remember the rough acrylic fur of my mustard-yellow teddy bear—his large, flat eyes affixed to his face with glue. I remember the strange ding-dong of a red rocking apple toy with a weighted bottom and a bell somewhere in its middle. It wore a big, black smile on its painted apple face.
I might wish that my first memories were recollections of sunbeams and soft green grass, but like most of us, I spent my early years in an artificial, but not unpleasant, cocoon of manufactured environments. Yet even my later memories of childhood, a childhood spent largely out of doors, are filled with artificial sights, sounds, and flavors. I do recall my first sip of honeysuckle nectar but can more easily remember the smell of a scratch-and-sniff strawberry sticker. I have no early memories of birdsong, but even today I can hear the pop-pop sounds I made playing with my grandmother’s plastic bead necklace-and-bracelet combination set.
Childhood play, at least in prosperous, industrialized communities, is largely factory-made. It is the static-electric shock of a plastic slide. It is an inflatable bouncy house kept buoyant with a choking generator. It is slick stickers, scented markers, indoor playgrounds, inflatable pools, and climbing walls. It is sometimes difficult to know if we are protecting children from the danger of creation or preparing them to meet it. Is the climbing wall at the gym preparation for the mountain? Is it better than the mountain? Or do we watch our child climb the wall, safely ensconced in a harness, with no thought at all for the actual mountain that inspired this form of play?
Like most of us, I spent my early years in an artificial, but not unpleasant, cocoon of manufactured environments.
My own children experienced theme-park mountains long before they experienced the real thing. We lived in Florida and took advantage of discounted amusement park tickets for locals. Those palm-treedotted parks featured quite a few “mountains,” because that is one of the few topographies capable of satisfying a roller coaster’s hunger for heights. While I crouched in a triangle of shade on the concrete path with my stroller-bound toddler, my husband and older children laughed all the way up each imitation peak and screamed in pleasure all the way down the other side. When they needed a break, we took lazy boat rides on azure-tinted rivers. The water was wet enough, but it was also filtered and treated with chlorine.
We no longer live in the sunshine state, but on a snowy day late last winter, I thought of those manufactured theme-park environments. My four children were home from school, and though they had spent the morning throwing snowballs and making one another cry, by afternoon my two sons were each absorbed in an electronic world-building game. While I stirred another batch of hot chocolate, my younger son called out with pride in his voice, “Look, Mom! I made a snowman!” As real snow swirled outside our windows, my son had been playing with pixels.
I did not let the moment pass without imparting a lesson about the difference between real and virtual reality. It was only later, when I remembered the timber of pride in his little-boy voice, that I reconsidered my initial dismay. I recognized then that my son is made in the image of a creator, but he is waking to his true creative identity through plastic interlocking building blocks, waxy crayons, and bits and bytes of computer data. I am grateful he and his siblings have access to so many inspiring tools.
My son is waking to his true creative identity through plastic interlocking building blocks, waxy crayons, and bits and bytes of computer data.
I may prefer an icy snowman in the backyard to a pixelated snowman on a screen, but how often have I, with so many more resources and with so much more experience, also chosen the manufactured substitute for some genuine experience? I do this because the less mediated life of real weather and actual geographies often feels like too much. It is too messy, or too time-consuming, or too expensive, or too difficult. Sometimes, it is too inaccessible. Quite often, it is too unpredictable. It is impossible to control. This makes the world beyond our cocoons of safety and comfort an uneasy setting for our fun.
I have tended to assume fun should always be relaxing. My idea of fun is a morning spent with a good book or an afternoon spent dipping my toes into the refreshing bubbles of a brook, stream, or creek. But fun also courts with danger. Think trampolines, skateboards, and dirt bikes. Factory fun is not always safe, and natural fun is not always enjoyable. I love a good picnic, but my picnic memories are marred by mosquitos, ants, and one unforgettable scorpion. And though I do not like roller coasters myself, I love to read classic murder mysteries. I think it is safe to say we all prefer the artificial version of that particular experience.
Perhaps the important thing is not which form of fun we choose on any given day, but that we always hold on to an awareness of the difference. We can appreciate the ease and accessibility of a theme park’s manufactured world, and we can be grateful for the safety of a well-managed safari excursion, but I pray that those environments will always stir up a hunger, both in me and in my children, for the real wonders they invoke. The little plastic roller-coaster mountain speaks of men and women. How creative we are! How inventive! The towering, snow-capped peak speaks of God. How mighty He is! And how holy! The One who loves us is the One “who establishes the mountains by His strength” (Psalm 65:6).
Only on some days do we hunger for thrills, but every day we hunger for food. The paper calendar stuck to my refrigerator reminds me that my children have a school holiday on the near horizon. If this day is like so many of our family holidays, it will begin with a homemade breakfast. Perhaps my husband will bake his signature pastry tarts. Flaky, buttery pastry filled with the bright flavor of our own jam puts the taste of pop-up toaster tarts in their proper, diminished place.
We’ll save the boxed breakfast for the rush of a school-day morning, though my children love the taste of both. One is easy breezy. The other is a little more complex and a little less convenient. Both are good, but for our holiday, we’ll choose the one that has more of the flavor of their father’s creativity. It is the dish that tastes the strongest of his love for us.