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November 23, 2008

Play-Doh Running

Suffice it to say, the post I had originally intended for Saturday never materialized – so it will be postponed until another day. In the meantime, I’ve found myself coming to grips with the passage of time quite frequently lately.

I mentioned a while back that my youngest daughter was soon to turn 5; that day has now come and gone, and our family has a freshly minted 5-year-old in our midst. It’s quite likely that she’ll forever and always remain the baby of our family, so watching her skip off to elementary school this year feels like a chapter of our epic parental adventure has come to a close.

I’m generally not nostalgic for having infants and toddlers around the house, and I don’t lament the progression of our children’s development. However, I realize that some routines and experiences that were once commonplace will become increasingly rare over the months and years to come, before disappearing forever. That’s not inherently a good thing or a bad one; it’s just the way things go.

For instance, it’s now almost hard for me to remember a certain peculiar habit I followed nearly every morning before lacing up my running shoes. Thankfully, I wrote most of the details down a few years ago – and the result is the post that follows below.


My running shoes usually occupy the bottom shelves of a utility cabinet in our dining area. A few shelves higher on the same cabinet is the storage area for our children’s Play-Doh containers and accessories. Surrounding the containers are leftover bits of dough that linger on the cabinet before eventually falling towards the floor.

Consequently, I’ve acquired an odd habit early in the morning before I go running: as I sit on our steps, preparing to lace up my shoes, the first thing I do is turn them upside down to empty out stray clods of Play-Doh.

Recently I’ve wondered if my daily runs would be any different if I just left the Play-Doh in my shoes; in many ways, the multi-purpose toy serves the same purposes for kids that running does for adults.

Play-Doh has been around for almost 50 years, primarily because it is an ideal interactive toy. It appeals to kids of all ages (and think about it- hasn’t every kid you’ve ever known had some? It must be the most ubiquitous toy ever), and has countless practical applications. It stimulates a child’s creativity, as well as his emotional and physical growth.

For babies, it exposes them to a unique texture, and helps develop their grasp. It teaches them basic colors, and how certain colors can be mixed to make other colors. (Of course, the lesson that everyone remembers best is that all colors crammed together for long enough eventually make brown.)

Toddlers use Play-Doh to develop fine motor skills, and to experience how objects can be manipulated to change their form. Older kids use it in a more scientific context – either to learn how it’s made, what causes it to dry out and harden, or why water can rehabilitate a partially-parched clump.

Play-Doh has therapeutic properties as well. In fact, there’s a whole subset of child psychology called “clay therapy” which utilizes the material to help draw out aspects of a child’s personality that otherwise stay unrevealed.

Now compare the wide-ranging functions of Play-Doh to those that grown-ups reap from the sport of running. While the most obvious gains are to our physical well-being, our sport provides numerous creative and emotional benefits as well.

For example, most of the ideas for articles I write are hatched in the midst of a run somewhere. The physical exertion and endorphin surge somehow open a creative reservoir that is inaccessible at other times of the day. It’s a common phenomenon, as many people have stories of some business or relationship problem that was finally figured out while running.

Running exposes us to our physical surroundings, and instills an acute awareness of their impact on us. Rolling hills and sloping sand dunes become much more impressive structures when you’re struggling up the sides of them - and running at the feet of majestic redwood trees, or along a mountain trail, is enough to ingrain a sense of humility in almost any of us.

Finally, running also displays qualities of people that aren’t otherwise obvious in their daily lives. Whether it’s the competitive nature of a shy middle-aged woman, the focused discipline of a marathon runner, or the perseverance and determination of an ultrarunner, running is the means by which these traits are developed and later revealed.

Author Robert Fulghum once contemplated what the world would be like if, instead of bombing enemy countries, we dropped packs of Crayola crayons instead. He envisioned creating a generation that was too busy developing their creative and artistic talents to cultivate hatred. The scenario could just as easily pertain to dropping Play-Doh - or for that matter, to developing a generation of runners.

(Incidentally, this story also plays into my father’s theory of how to topple Communist nations: instead of isolating them, we should just open the floodgates and give them the full capitalistic, decadent American experience. Once they start playing GameBoys, eating French fries and Krispy Kremes, buying iPods and watching Beyonce videos, they’ll get addicted, and overthrow their dictators to acquire more. It’s not a bad idea, really. But I digress…)

After all, newcomers often comment about what a nice group of people runners typically are – so it’s not too far-fetched to suppose that the world might be a better place if more people were runners. It seems that when people have some activity that brings them satisfaction, humility and joy on a regular basis, they’ll be less inclined to foster the petty grievances that grow into bitterness or insecurity.

In light of all these things, I’ve started leaving the Play-Doh in my shoes when I head out the door for my morning run. I’m hoping that it helps me to appreciate the world around me, and reminds me that childhood is never too far behind me. As I head out the door, the Play-Doh is a silent reminder of the possibilities that lie before me with each morning’s run, and with the rest of the day that follows.


Thomas 11/24/08, 4:25 AM  

I think your dad's theory was pretty much put into practise - and what;s more, it worked.

I'm still not sure how that relates to play-doh and then to running, but that's the way your blog works, I guess.

Backofpack 11/24/08, 8:00 AM  

Our youngest came home from college last night for Thanksgiving break. I thought Eric and I were going to burst from happiness. I sooooo miss the days when they were home and underfoot all the time. And at the same time I have such joy in this young adult who is our son. Cherish each day with that newly minted five year old, and her siblings. It goes by much too fast...

Deene 11/24/08, 10:20 AM  

that baby image doesn't go away - before my father got ill and had diet restrictions he used to pick himself up beers and a can of orange soda for me when we went fishing. even when i'm way past drinking age and i have a 13 yr old kid he won't let me have a beer.

Dave 11/24/08, 11:17 AM  

Donald, oh a reminder of the seasons of life. I so dread the day my little ones will move out. There are times they drive me crazy and I try to think ahead of me missing the random lego left out causing the latest foot malady. On day you will miss the play doh in the shoes. Let us lament the absence of these days together. :)

David 11/24/08, 5:15 PM  

The absolutely most memorable characteristic of Play Doh is the smell. It smells like kindergarten in the morning.

robtherunner 11/24/08, 5:19 PM  

I would just like to comment that I expected an early childhood lecture from Michelle :) I must also admit that we still have play-doh around the house and my wife is not too fond of the clean up process.

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