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TODAY

Tuesday, February 19

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Airbags

We have a swing set in our backyard — just a swing set, not an elaborate wooden contraption with a faux rock climbing wall and a system of tubes and tunnels, just the swing part. We were lucky to be given this by a former beloved preschool teacher. Her boys had outgrown it, so she offered it to whomever would go to her yard and take it apart. It came with a climbing platform and ladder, but we never got around to putting that up. It's been in our yard ever since, and my daughter swings every day. She goes out periodically throughout the day — probably three or four times — in rain or shine, night or day. I think it resets her brain. She's getting tall now, tall enough that I am percolating a plan for a taller swing set, because I don't see her stopping swinging anytime soon.

Learning to swing was more difficult for my kids than I anticipated. My own childhood history has me out back swinging and singing at age two. I never imagined that something like swinging, or pedaling a tricycle would be things that my older two children would take their own sweet time figuring out. So, I spent a lot of time out there pushing kids on swings, which is a fun thing to do, but I was pretty happy when it all came together: the pumping, the leaning back and pulling. Suddenly they were flying solo and I got to do the thing I do best: something else. I get a lot more gardening done now that I don't have to stop and give someone a push every two minutes. (If we define gardening as reading gardening magazines while the weeds grow, that is.)

The swing set has sat in the same spot in our yard for six years. Six years worth of shoes dragging on the grass has worn it down to a pit. Add some spring rain to that and you've got yourself a mud wallow. It's just a shame that we don't have a hog to raise in our backyard, or a pet hippo. Fortunately we do raise boys, and boys like mud.

After a long, long late winter in which I contemplated eliminating all forms of electronic entertainment devices and gave up thinking that I would ever be able to open up the back door and shoo people out of it, spring has sprung. There is now a thick layer of crusty dried mud all over just about every pair of shoes in the house. When the dog goes out for a breath of fresh air she tracks 800 muddy paw prints all over the floor on her way back to the couch. The backyard looks like a garage sale exploded all over it, with all manner of broken trucks, plastic containers, action figures and discarded clothing strewn about. But what's a little mopping when there are a couple of dirty boys who have spent hours at play in the yard, tired out and ready for bed after supper. Yesterday they stripped all the bark from the logs bordering the garden and fashioned a lean-to against the overturned, empty plastic sandbox. They have built a fort with a paint-spattered tarp strung up over a lawn chair, underneath the mulberry tree.

The number one thing I hear kids getting yelled at about when we are at the park or the zoo or wherever is "Don't get your clothes dirty!" For goodness sake, what is all the fuss about? It's not like we have to go down to the river and beat our clothes clean on a rock. "But it stains!" Ok, yes, stains. Yawn. So kids wear clean clothes that are stained when they go outside to play, and then it doesn't really matter if they get more stained, right? If it's rainy and muddy, maybe some boots. We had, for a while, a pair of rain pants that were pretty handy for the puddle stomping. I'll have to think about getting some more of those for the current puddler. It seems to me that kids, when going out to play, should not even be conscious of what they are wearing on their bodies. Comfort, nothing special, layers. Anything beyond that and there is worry about clothing and getting in trouble and angry mothers, and there goes the fun of sliding down a hill on your butt.

The one area that I have issues with are shoes. The boys each only have a couple of pairs of shoes. So one flying leap into the vernal pond that is the soccer field right now and we are seriously hurting for shoe choices. I never thought I'd cave to the Crocs mania that is sweeping the nation. Dropping a bunch of dough on goofy looking plastic shoes for the boys seemed unlikely. I did it, though: red clogs. And you know what? Best 25 bucks ever spent. You can hose them off, dry them with a towel and you are good to go. I only bought them for the little guy, but based on the success we've had with that pair, we'll all be sporting them before long, much to the dismay of my fashion sense (or lack thereof). I'm a big proponent of going barefooted, particularly in the yard. Feet are super easy to clean, and it would appear that Crocs might be the next best thing, especially as I sense that we are about to come down with a raging case of garden fever.

When we moved to our current neighborhood, we had two little squares of front yard that were as hard as a slab of concrete. I literally broke shovels trying to get in there and turn the soil over. So, as soon as it was April and rainy, the kids and I took our buckets and went out worm hunting. You know how sometimes it just smells like worms outside? We picked a day like that. Down at our park the sidewalks were strewn with giant wigglers trying to make a break for the lawn. It was gross! But not as gross as the bucket of worms we hauled home 20 minutes later. We had been using a stick to pick the foul beasts up, and it was sticking out of the bucket. Imagine the horror when we discovered that our worms were attempting to escape, and wriggling out of the bucket via the stick. They were dangling! I shudder at the memory. We shoved them back in the bucket and picked up the pace. When we got back to our house, we dumped the worms onto the front lawn.

In addition to a yearly bucket of worms (though never as many as that first magically disgusting day), and countless shovels of compost from the bin out back, my kids can now dig with spoons in the dirt out front. We've got daylilies, peonies, Iris, Clematis, hollyhocks, rue, White Nancy, Yarrow, a Butterfly Bush, lavender, two kinds of sage, Forsythia and old-fashioned roses transplanted from my Grandma's house that, if you use them like a powder puff, explode into tiny pink petals all around. Very popular with the little ladies.

Chicago is a big city: gritty, polluted, litter strewn. Urban. Tough! But underneath that hard exterior is ground that wants to grow stuff. It's farmland that's been covered up with a city. If you allow your little patch of city to relax for 10 minutes on a warm, wet, spring day, it's going to start growing stuff.

Just about every 10 minutes or so, we look out at the front garden to see what's changed since the last check. There are Irises poking up, getting taller by the second, and the patch of Day Lilies I moved in a fit of pique last fall is coming to life. It's no longer just my imagination; there are buds on the lilac. Mud? Buds? Red plastic elf shoes? All of those signs can only point to one thing: it's going to snow.

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About the Author(s)

Lori Upchurch lives on the far Northwest Side in a house that's overflowing with books, kids, pets and too much stuff from the thrift store. She is a proud member of Team Upchurch, a family of multi-talented unschoolers. She can generally be spotted driving around with a bunch of kids, not all of them hers, looking for someplace fun to get out and play.

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