As the playing-outdoors season is (slowly, teasingly) beginning, I’ve been repeatedly reminded of a really useful yet simple concept that a neighbor taught me two years ago:
When a small child is involved in playing with a ball on a hill, throw the ball uphill. That way, when it hits the ground and starts rolling, it’s rolling back toward the child instead of away. It’s a lot less likely to roll frustratingly out of reach.
You might be thinking, “Well, why don’t you just make the kid play ball in a flat place?” Clearly, you don’t live here. Let me explain.
First of all, we live in Pittsburgh. Everything is on a hill! There are some neighborhoods where you can come to an intersection and get the visual impression that the streets are level in all four directions, but drop a ball (or a pen or a bottle or a contact lens) and you’ll soon learn which way is downhill. Anyway, we don’t live in one of those flattish neighborhoods. Our street goes uphill for about one-third of the block, then goes downhill past our house and drops more and more sharply until it has to make an S-curve to get down to the cross street; the total change in elevation is about 60 feet in one block. There’s also a slope in the other direction: The houses across the street from us are more than one story higher, with full flights of stairs scaling the hillside to reach their front doors. Our front door is just above ground level, but in back we can walk out of the basement door into the near part of the back yard, and then the back half of the yard slopes down so steeply you can’t walk upright, and on the property line is a three-story retaining wall . . . so although there’s a busy parking lot right behind our yard, we are high above it!
Also, we live in a row house with a front yard about as big as a queen-size bed, planted with groundcover and shrubbery and flowers, and as you’ve already guessed the back yard is not a great place to play with a ball. We do have lovely sidewalks, great for drawing with chalk, running, and playing with a ball. The public sidewalks make a great play area for the kids, all up and down the block. The only problem is, when something rolls away from them, it too can go all the way down the block.
Two summers ago, my son was 3 and enjoyed playing with a neighbor boy who was 2. One of their favorite games was throwing a ball in a random direction and then chasing it to see who could catch it and thereby get the next turn to throw. Great game . . . and great exercise for the parents who often wound up chasing the ball ourselves, frantically trying to keep it from rolling into the street and then into the storm drain at the first bend, where it would be lost forever. The other mother, a native of Kazakhstan, struggled with English, but we managed to joke about this improvised workout in between admonishing our respective sons, in our respective languages, to throw the ball gently and away from the street.
Then one evening I heard my neighbor say something different in her language, as she bent over her son, turned him to face uphill on the sidewalk, mimed throwing the ball in that direction, and held out her palm parallel to the pavement. He threw the ball and chortled with delight as it rolled right back to him, eluding the grasp of his larger playmate. He repeated this several times. Then he threw it downhill. We all went into the usual frenzy of trying to stop the ball from escaping, ending with my son catching it at the very bottom curb just before it could roll into traffic on the main street. By now I had caught on to my neighbor’s wisdom, and I said, “Nicholas! New rule: Throw the ball uphill.”
Thus began a new era of relative sanity. The boys soon developed a new game in which they stood on the sidewalk and the downhill boy threw the ball to the uphill boy and then ran around him to get ready to catch. They found it particularly hilarious when this game brought them past the peak of the hill so that the uphill direction mysteriously turned into the downhill direction.
Then those neighbors moved away, and so did the other kid with whom mine had been playing most frequently. Now he often winds up playing by himself or with a parent. Throwing the ball uphill is even more important when you’re alone. And if you’re the parent who’s just hanging out, reading or something, while your kid plays, there’s this related rule: Position yourself as far downhill from the kid as you possibly can, so that when he loses the ball you’ve got good odds of being able to block its path before it rolls down to you.
Throwing uphill works for me!