Thursday, 24 October 2013

Horse Chestnuts

These are horse chestnuts, so named to distinguish them from the chestnuts we like to eat in fall and winter. They look similar but are very high in tannin, making them bitter tasting and difficult to digest.

Horse chestnuts are valued shade trees here.  Their smooth grey trunks, towering pyramidal shape, and dense foliage make them a stately addition to large expanses of park land.  They were planted along the boulevards of many of our older streets and now, perhaps a century later, their branches form a shady bower under which both cars and pedestrians find shelter from the summer sun.  

In springtime, horse chestnuts bloom, the tips of their branches bearing upward-growing pyramidal racemes of white, ivory, or dark pink blossoms like the ones shown here.  They're beautiful.

As small children, though, my friends and I treasured horse chestnuts most in the fall.  

The blossoms that decorate the trees in spring transform over the course of the summer into formidable looking, spine bearing, green drupes and inside each of these husks are hidden three or four silky smooth chestnuts, usually about an inch and a half or two inches in diameter.  

As kids, we greeted those chestnuts with delight. 

Even as a child, the beauty of horse chestnuts spoke to me.  I admired the swirls of reddish-brown and dark brown that dressed them, and I loved to gather them up, enjoying their weight in my coat pocket and the pleasure of running my thumb over their smooth skin.  They were my worry beads.

For the boys in the neighbourhood, they incited a flurry of young warrior games.  

Horse chestnuts were gathered as ammunition for sling shots, and they were pierced through and strung on old shoe laces.  

Some were strung with a chestnut and either end of the lace and hurled like bolos at targets marked on tree trunks or fences. (Or school walls.  Sssshhh!  Don't tell!)  

Others were strung singly so their owners could face off against each other, swinging the chestnuts in arcs at the ends of their laces so that they collided with as much force as possible. "Cobbers" would be swung at each other again and again - with poorly aimed chestnuts imperiling unguarded knuckles - until one or the other of the chestnuts shattered.  The owner of the surviving chestnut would be declared the winner and eventually, by means of a complicated tournament structure that only the participants understood, a grand champion would be declared.

These games may seem silly now, but as children they engaged our attention as completely as any computer game might engage a child today.  They helped us learn to derive entertainment from the materials at hand.  Contests were taken seriously, and through them we learned a lot about competition, chance, and fair play, all the while having a great deal of fun.  

Although I can't resist picking them up myself, I notice that the children in my neighbourhood no longer seem to gather horse chestnuts.  Their attention is taken up by other things.  They are busy with organized activities, with cel phones, and with screen time.  Not that these things are necessarily bad; they're part of modern life and our kids need to be proficient with them in order to succeed. 

Still, it makes me sad that the free play games children have improvised for centuries, from the materials nature provides, seem to be on the wane.

Perhaps there's a way to strike a balance?

Perhaps if we let, or even require that, children have a certain amount of unstructured outdoor playtime each day - time with no cel phones, no electronic games, no rules other than those pertaining to basic safety and courtesy - it would be a good thing.  

Kids learn a lot important life skills from free play.  Free play builds social skills and problem solving skills.  It fosters creative thinking and independence.  It helps children to understand and appreciate their environment.  It prepares them to be successful adults by enabling them to find their own ways of interpreting the world around them.

That's a lot from a handful of horse chestnuts isn't it?

What do you think?  Do kids need more free play time?  Would you like to see your kids (or grandkids, or students) spending more time at play without structure or screen time?  

Stop by my Facebook page or Twitter feed and share your opinions. I'm looking forward to hearing from you.