Dispatches | July 29, 2004

[By Rebecca Dunham]

This past weekend, my husband and I found ourselves braving the steady rain with our nineteen-month-old son to meet some friends and their two-year-old daughter at the Boone County Fair. This is the kind of expedition that is increasingly making its way onto our social calendar. Though our son is just learning to string words into phrases, his social life already dominates our schedule. Toddlers, of course, do not relate with each other in any way that we as adults would recognize as interaction. They seem oblivious to one another, engrossed in their own activity—dumping sand systematically from sandbox to lawn, for example, one small shovelful at a time. Instead, they absorb one another’s play out of the corner of their eyes, and pretty soon another toddler will pick up on the sand-dumping idea, even as the first toddler has moved on to another activity, like collecting seedpods from the ground. Experts call this “parallel play” and these days it is impressed upon parents how important such interaction is.

And so we found ourselves huddling in the children’s tent at the county fair, watching Simon and Claire ignore the intended attraction—pigs and horses and turkeys—and engage instead in what passes for a get-together among their age-set. Mostly, they seemed determined to move all the wheat and soy beans from the display bins to an empty urn several feet away. Later, Claire decided to climb up on the bales of straw and walk them like a balance beam. A while later, Simon seemed to get the idea as well, though by now Claire had moved on to playing in the puddles that earlier claimed Simon’s attention. As we trailed them, hoping to avert any imminent toddler disasters, I couldn’t help think that this kind of parallel play that we strive to provide for our kids isn’t such a bad model for the sort of literary community we need today.

Parallel play allows toddlers to feel themselves part of a community of the like-minded—other kids who understand the virtues of eating soup with their fists, for example—and allows them to pick up new skills and fresh ideas, seemingly without effort. It is just in the air around them, waiting to be absorbed and processed. They are constantly learning. It is the kind of environment in which writers thrive and which can be increasingly difficult to recreate as university jobs disperse writers around the country. I don’t mean to send out a nostalgic cry for the days of yore—there are still vibrant writing communities in our urban centers. But for those of us who have been redirected from these geographic enclaves to relatively isolated college towns across the country, there is a real longing for an environment of “parallel play,” one in which you can’t avoid bumping up against new ideas and approaches to creating literature.

The rich sense of possibility and the willingness to take risks and fail, both characteristics that mark a toddler’s play, are things to be envied. As I stood in the tent, listening to the rain beat its tarp, I resolved to work harder to maintain those ties to other writers I’ve connected with over the years but am now separated from by geography. We have only just recently sprung for a high-speed internet connection at home, and I’ve begun to really recognize the possibilities of such a community online. I vowed to e-mail some poems to friends in other states, and to spend more time visiting literary websites, which have the potential to become the literary enclaves of the future, albeit virtual ones. It is this kind of immersion in a literary milieu, after all, which helps us learn how to stretch our own capabilities and have fun while doing so. Just because it feels like “play” doesn’t make it unimportant.