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John Engel: For kids, fun in the snow trumps holiday gifts

Simplifying holidays can be challenging. This year my wife, Lori, and I attempted, once again, to harness exuberant gift giving energy, which in our family stretches from Hanukah through Christmas.

We started by noticing that our kids, Zoe and Adam, enjoy playing with Legos, blocks and trains, and, not surprisingly, our house is constantly littered with hundreds of small toy pieces. We decided the perfect family gift would allow the kids to play with these existing toys and reduce household clutter.

Recalling a trip to a children’s museum, we thought about an amazing train table we had seen. The table was about 2 feet high with holes cut in the middle so that young children could crawl underneath, pop up in the middle and easily reach all of the table while routing trains around the tracks. We had to drag our kids away from it when it was time to leave the museum.

What could be better than a train table, we thought?

After the holiday shopping frenzy subsided, I headed to a big box home building store with gift money pooled from extended family, and the kids.

A materials run with Daddy routinely serves as a morning of entertainment for Zoe and Adam. They ride in the race-car-shaped shopping cart, pretend to drive the riding lawn mowers and track down beeping forklifts. With a granola bar and water bottle for each, I can shop for more than an hour with minimal discord.

In housewares I selected a pair of shelving units, which when assembled have six cubbyholes each. Then the kids selected colorful fabric baskets that can be stuffed full of miscellaneous toys and shoved into the cubbies. They each picked a paint color and while that was being mixed we headed to lumber for a sheet of plywood and a few 2-by-4s. The project was already proving to be great fun for everyone.

In the days that followed, I realized that completing the project would take longer than I ever imagined. One morning we assembled the first shelving unit, each kid cranking in a handful of screws before losing interest. The next morning we assembled the second shelving unit. On the third morning the kids stuffed toys into some of the baskets and even managed to get a couple of baskets into the cubbies.

Eventually, we laid out the tracks on the plywood to determine the best design. After assembling the 66 pieces of track in a variety of patterns, over the course of many days, we settled on a giant figure eight with a 16-inch hole to be cut in both the top and bottom of the eight.

The kids donned earplugs and jittered with excitement as I fired up the jigsaw. I rounded the sharp corners of the plywood, in an attempt to reduce future bodily harm, to their heads and my shins, and then cut the centered holes. We sanded the edges smooth and sucked up the dust with the shop vacuum.

With the board set across the top of the two shelving units, the kids played happily for at least 10 minutes before Zoe, in an sweet and suggestive voice said, “Daddy, this table is really nice, and it will look even nicer after we paint it.”

In their well-worn smocks they rolled and brushed white primer on the bare table and a green topcoat the next day. A day later we reassembled the tracks and eventually painted a lake and a river that runs under the trestle.

The table was a cooperative work of genius, a family project of epic proportions that ended without tears and the kids love it.

Yet when Lori asked the kids about their favorite part of the holiday break, they both reported that playing in the snow was the highlight. The train table did not even receive honorable mention.

And, it was true. Zoe and Adam could not get enough of the snow. In their rag-tag collection of hand-me-down puffy jackets, snow pants and boots, they made snow people, climbed mountains, shoveled, sledded, dug tunnels, and ate snow, lots of snow. Adam even declared: “Snow is healthy food.”

What could be better than free healthy food that falls from the sky, I thought?

In the end, making the train table was a great family bonding experience, the final product will serve as a source of play for years to come, and we may have reduced a bit of household clutter. More importantly, the kids reminded us that fun simply happens in the present moment. And in the moment, fresh snow trumps holiday gifts, even the coolest train table ever built.

John Engel is an organizational development coach and consultant living in Florence. Engel can be reached through his website, www.fatherhoodjourney.com.

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