Playing with Sticks: A Childhood Tradition

Not long ago, my husband and I pulled up to our house with a van full of grandchildren. Ten-year-old Ava peered out her window and exclaimed, “Grandma! There’s my stick!”  Somehow, during the four months since their last visit, a 3-foot stick she had claimed for her own migrated to our parkway from wherever she had left it—and she recognized it. She hopped out of the van and picked up her toy.

Ava’s delight at being reunited with that stick reminded me of writer Jim Northrup’s description of walking in the woods with his toddler grandson, who “used one word out of the two hundred he knows to describe what he saw … stick! There were sticks all over the woods. He sampled several before he found one he liked, one that fit his little hand.” His grandson then drew lines in the snow with his stick and waved it around like a saber.

Our Ava had gone through a similar process of stick selection. Maybe you can remember what that was like in your childhood. A stick has to feel right and look right for a child to choose it as a toy. It can’t be too old or too dry or it will snap when you put pressure on it. If it’s too heavy, you’ll get tired of carrying it. A stick that’s very crooked will be hard to balance when you build with it and won’t work as a sword or wand. On the other hand, if you’re making a brush pile to hide behind, size and quantity are what matter most. And you don’t want to waste a fine magic wand stick by adding it to your brush pile!

So a child might get very upset if something happens to “his” stick. The adults may not understand this: “It’s just a stick! You’ll find another one.” But the child knows that a good stick isn’t so easy to replace.

Children don’t necessarily put their selection criteria into words, and often they seem to use trial and error rather than a strategic approach. That process of finding the right stick, be it a twig or a fallen tree branch, may be rooted deep in human history (or prehistory). The National Toy Hall of Fame notes that the stick may be humanity’s oldest toy. It seems likely that stick selection was especially careful for folk games and sports such as lacrosse and baseball’s precursors. Research in archeology also suggests that sticks were among peoples’ first tools and earliest weapons; they probably developed and shared criteria for what traits made a stick suitable for a particular task.

This suggests that choosing and using sticks involves children in making some of the same discoveries about physics and engineering that early humans made when they began employing sticks for various purposes. If we watch children at play with sticks, we see them used for tapping, striking, poking, bending, breaking, dragging, stirring, dropping, floating, pushing, scraping, peeling, piling, stacking, throwing, balancing, twirling, and rubbing together. Few playthings have such versatile physical properties.

But it also seems that few playthings inspire so much worry in adults. The adult tendency to visualize all sorts of stick-related disasters befalling the children in our care is so ingrained that children’s author Antoinette Portis makes it central to her picture book Not a Stick. The book opens with an obviously adult voice warning: “Hey, be careful with that stick.” The main character (a little rabbit) responds “It’s not a stick,” and, indeed, we see that the rabbit imagines the stick as a fishing rod catching a shark. Similar exchanges follow (“Look where you’re going with that stick.” “It’s not a stick.”). Sticks, the book reminds the reader, have an almost infinite capacity to become Something Else in the mind of a child.

Their physical and symbolic versatility are two good reasons for us adults to manage our safety concerns and let children play with sticks. There are other reasons as well. “The stick” was a 2008 inductee into the Toy Hall of Fame, along with the baby doll and the skateboard. Unlike both of those classic toys, however, sticks costs nothing. They can go anywhere with a child, even indoors (within reason, and with a few behavioral guidelines in place). It’s an any-season plaything, a catalyst for pretend play and for rediscovering some of humanity’s oldest scientific and technical knowledge.

It’s true that, like any other plaything, sticks can do damage if they aren’t handled properly. But teachers and parents (and grandparents) can take a few moments to set some limits with children, just as we do for other toys, and provide reminders and logical consequences as needed to help children play safely. Better yet, maybe we can find our own favorite sticks and join the children in building muskrat houses and bird nests, drawing in snow, rolling hoops, knocking ice cubes across the sidewalk, riding stick-horses, having stick-boat races … or whatever else they can dream up with us.


References

  • Northrup, Jim. (2012). Rez Salute: The Real Healer Dealer. Golden, CO: Fulcrum.
  • Portis, Antoinette. (2008). Not a Stick. New York: HarperCollins.

Jean Mendoza

Jean Mendoza is a content specialist for the Illinois Early Learning Project. She has worked and played in a variety of settings, including home child care, preschool programs, a K–1 classroom, and early childhood teacher education. Her professional interests include outdoor play, play therapy, and the role of play in children’s inquiry.