December in Kentucky is supposed to be chilly, with thirty degree days and twenty degree nights being not unusual. But over the last three weeks Old Man Winter has given us a full display of his wares. We’ve had snow. We’ve had ice. Temperatures have consistently remained at least ten degrees below normal. We’ve even had a couple of days where the mercury couldn’t push its way up into the double digit markings.
As a result of all this, Polly, Pip, and I have spent very little time outside of our apartment. It’s just been too cold. Each morning I’ve looked through our kitchen window and thought maybe I should take the kids out to at least walk around in the snow. But then I’ve felt the harsh blast of air rush in as Ava leaves for work and decided that even playing in the snow would not be fun for long enough to justify all the effort it takes to bundle the kids up and keep them warm. So we’ve made due with what diversions we can find inside.
In past years, this kind of confinement has been an unpleasant experience for Pip and me. We could usually make it for a couple of days without incident, but by day three or four we would start snipping at each other. Little annoyances would then become magnified and our frustration with being stuck inside would build up into a full-fledged tension between each other. Ava would then have to spend a couple of nights working to defuse things in order to restore harmony in the house.
That has not been the case this year. In fact, I have come to enjoy this time together. One reason for this is that I have gotten better at heading off moments of frustration and at anticipating when Polly and Pip need a shift in their activities. Another reason is that Pip is becoming less dependent upon me for direction and more capable of creating games for Polly and himself. A third reason can be located in the emerging prominence in our household of one my favorite childhood toys: Legos.
Between the ages of six and twelve, I spent a great deal of time playing with Legos. I had a moderate amount of these finger-sized interlocking blocks, and from the wings, wheels, lights, and bricks of solid green, yellow, blue, black, grey, and white I built an ever-changing array of different structures and vehicles. I had a particular affinity for space-themed constructions. The several Christmases of this period netted me a pair of spaceships, a space station, a moon rover, and a couple of smaller exploration vehicles. It was great fun to work through the instructions for one of these sets and have the picture on the box come to life in my hands. It was even more fun to then tear the thing apart and see what I could build on my own. I have fond memories of running around our house flying the armada of unusual vehicles my sister and I had created.
After my Lego fascination was replaced by other interests during middle and high school, my mother packed all my accumulated parts away in an 8” x 8” x 12” box and put it on a shelf for me to rediscover some day. I left it there when I went to college. Then, while I was in graduate school, my parents moved, and the box came into my hands once again. It has remained amongst our stored things ever since, waiting, a bit like Tolkein’s ring, for the right time to re-emerge.
When Pip was eighteen months old, we bought him a basket of wooden blocks at a yard sale. I spent much of that summer and fall trying to convince him that building something with them was fun, but he was only interested in knocking things down. In fact, he was so eager to wreck whatever I tried to build that I rarely could get more than two or three blocks stacked on each other before he would come barreling towards me with hands and feet flailing. This got so frustrating for me that I eventually put the blocks away.
From that starting point, he has gradually progressed towards a more constructive relationship with building toys. This development started with a sack of Mega Blocks (basically a toddler version of Legos) that my parents gave him the following Christmas. He took some interest in stacking these together but was still much happier ripping apart the creations of others. The next spring, Ava found a small bucket of Legos at another yard sale and brought them home for Pip to try out. Through the summer we would get them out periodically, and Pip would fiddle with a couple of pieces while I built a helicopter or a tractor or a locomotive or an airplane for him. Over the winter as he turned three years old, he began asking me to make specific things for him – a ship, a dog, a dinosaur, a sailboat. He started paying more attention to how I was putting things together and began being more protective of these creations. He also started making a few creations of his own with the Mega Blocks. These usually consisted of a single large block topped with a few stray pieces that jutted out to the left or right.
When we moved to Lexington this past summer, Ava and I put the Mega Blocks away and shifted Pip’s creative energies towards the small bucket of Legos. With these pieces he began imagining more complex structures – a railroad station, an airport – and asking me to build them. He wasn’t ready for a full project of his own, but he hovered around me and quickly began adding his own pieces to the foundations I created.
In late November, he was ready for more. One day he saw a picture of a cargo ship in one of his books and decided that this would be his first independent Lego creation. He worked on it sporadically for a couple of hours, adding some pieces here, pulling others off there, and then brought it over for me to see. In his hand was a solid 4” x 4” x 6” block cobbled together from Legos of various sizes and colors. The block rested on a small grey platform and was topped by a pilothouse defined by a pair of Lego windows. His face radiated pride.
Watching Pip work on his cargo ship, I could feel the time for the big box of Legos was at hand. Before we moved Ava had found a full cache of basic building pieces at a thrift store and had added those to the box from my childhood. Now I was anxious to see what Pip and I could do with such a massive collection, and I began to look for opportunities to finally crack into this stash.
In that respect this cold snap could not have come at a better time. After a couple of days inside we needed something new and exciting to keep us from getting stir crazy. The Legos were a perfect solution. So two weekends ago I went down to the basement during the kids’ naptime and dug them out.
When he saw them, Pip dug into the pile immediately. He was particularly attracted to the old brochures and instruction manuals I had kept because all the pictures they held gave him a flurry of new ideas. After about twenty minutes a common refrain began: “Daddy, can you make this for me”; “Daddy, I want you to make this thing”; “Daddy, do you know how to make this one?” It was like the song of the Sirens. I couldn’t, nor did I want to, resist. I happily plowed in with him and started giddily building away.
The cocktail of novelty, nostalgia, and the constant possibility of building something cool has carried us a long way over the last two weeks. We’ve made it through several days inside that might otherwise have driven us crazy. (In truth, Pip and I have probably benefited from this more than Polly. She likes the little vehicles we have built for her but gets frustrated that she can’t build more with us. I forget sometimes that she’s not even two years old yet) But what has really made these days enjoyable for me is not seeing what Pip is creating with the Legos but observing the larger developmental moves that his play with the Legos brings to the foreground. Pip’s creativity is expanding. He is asking more sophisticated and complex questions. He is learning how to share things and take turns with Polly. He is developing an awareness of how to politely communicate his interests and intentions. He is even proactively engaging Polly to keep her happy by bringing her new toys when he starts playing with something new and by finding ways to redirect her when she is beginning to bother him.
All of these things point towards the idea that Pip is becoming a person we hoped he would become. It gives us confidence that we are making sound choices in approach our parenting and makes us feel positive about both Pip and Polly’s futures. Confidence and the vague sense of certainty that comes with it can carry us a long way. They have made the last three weeks more enjoyable than I would have ever expected, and they make me feel like this winter will be a little bit better than the ones that have come before.