Table for one?” my four-year-old stepdaughter Ellie asks me during our daily walk. Mid-lockdown, I am lost in my own thoughts, contemplating the grim headlines of the day. She sits behind a fallen tree, humming, carefully scraping dirt from the tree trunk into her hand. “Welcome to my restaurant! We have everything you could want, and best of all — everything on my menu is free!”
Her eyes are bright with the excitement of imagination. We play at restaurants for a while; she tells me enthusiastically about what she and her (invisible) two chefs are cooking.
Watching Ellie at play, every day of the week, is proving to be an unexpected privilege of lockdown. Another is that she wakes every day with an ever-present enthusiasm for the day ahead, even when all the days seem similar and she has lost the structures that she used to enjoy so much. I find Ellie’s cheer and perpetual curiosity to be a lovely antidote to the tragedies unfolding in the news. This isn’t a new feeling — children are well known for being joy givers. During lockdown, however, a young child’s view on the world feels, to me, to be particularly refreshing.
When Ellie’s school closed, I was saddened that she’d be missing out on several months of her Reception year. As a primary school teacher, I understand well the magic that the first year of school can bring. Yet here we are, schools are closed. And without any peers to play with, I have become an often-times playmate. In doing so, I am mindful of the invigorating power of silliness and play. Letting go of reality, even if just for a little while each day, feels good. Joining Ellie in her play, or even just watching her play, helps to lower my overall anxiety level. I admire her ability to escape: to conjure up scenarios and fantasies and to be wholly present within them. Watching her at play, I remember that to imagine is to make anything possible. To stay with the fantasy is to learn something new every time — about the world, about her or about myself.
Regularly, the stories that Ellie constructs have a basis in reality. Yesterday, the tree trunk on our walk was a platform from which she stood and announced: “I’m the Queen of the forest. Listen to me! Coronavirus, you will go away by the time I count to three. Disappear! Abracadabra…one, two three…you’re gone now. Poof! Now let’s have a birthday party to celebrate!” I saw every day in my classroom that children construct stories in order to understand the world — to right the wrongs, to make sense of tragedy and sadness and to create and narrate a new, positive outcome. To see and hear the daily narratives that my own step-daughter has created has been eye opening.
When lockdown ends and Ellie is back at school, playing with her friends in the dress up corner of her classroom, I know I will miss some things. Through spending this unprecedented amount of quality time with Ellie, I have already learned much about her and her inner world, and in doing so I have also learned a bit about myself. Ellie is teaching me lots of things, most especially, perhaps, that maintaining presence in any given moment is what matters — even, and perhaps especially, when the world is a scary and surreal place.