Every summer, my daughter, Stella, and I rejoice when the playground sprinklers come on

When Stella was a baby, I dangled her over the glittering, piercing cold spray as she squealed with laughter. Soon she learned to walk, staggering through them, bucket and shovel in hand. Every year I could step back a little more from her, eventually watching from the park bench with the other parents. Before I knew it, she was biking through them with the other big girls.

Then, the summer before Stella entered first grade, we arrived at the park on the first hot day, as always. “Where is everyone?” I asked another mom, looking around. Where were the scooters and bikes, the jump ropes, the chattering, the hand-clapping games? “Avocado, avocado, is the name of the game, if you mess up I will change your name!” The park had been taken over by nannies and parents with babies sleeping or drooling on their shoulders.

“So where’s Maddie?” I asked Maddie’s mom.

“Camp, of course.” Maddie’s mom laughed.

“You didn’t sign up Stella?” another dad asked.

I soon learned that parents in my neighborhood didn’t choose just one camp. They piled them like wedding cake layers, one atop another. The first week of July brought Mandarin immersion mornings with synchronized swimming afternoons. Then followed two weeks of zoo camp, a ballet program with gymnastics, Mathnasium every Tuesday and Wednesday, a week of cooking school, and then two weeks of horseback riding. One mom sent her daughter to join a circus. She really, truly did.

“So what’s Stella doing?” Maddie’s mom leaned over to observe my daughter peering down a disgusting drain clogged with leaves and hair. “She’s just doing more of… this?”

“This, yes!” I nudged my kid’s hand away from the dirty drain, washing it in the sprinkler. “And field trips!”

If working at a school has prepared me for anything, it’s managing a field trip. (That I’m a librarian is just a bonus.) The build-up of anticipation, the meticulous coordination of details, and…coming home to reflect on the experience and make a project. Anything could be a field trip, even the hardware store! And I didn’t even have to bother with permission slips and emergency numbers.

That night, I stayed up late googling museums and free activities—there was hip-hop dance in the park!—and penciling in library craft activities at branches within ten miles. There was no reason we had to go to our local branch; we could travel anywhere and check out books with our three different library cards. We’d officially start our “sprinkler summer” filled with a sprinkling of activities.

For the first couple of weeks, I dealt with my anxiety and competitive streak by telling myself and others, “Stella has a coding class at the library tomorrow. On Friday, she does tie-dye.” We registered for all the free classes—our safety net—but we didn’t show up when the sprinklers beckoned.

We invented new routines, like frozen yogurt Thursdays, or writing illustrated letters to grandma once a week and mailing them ourselves. We scheduled all playdates for 4 p.m. when Stella’s friends finished camp. We carried a bulging blue Ikea bag to the playground and filled it with chalk, biodegradable water balloons, soap bubbles, a parachute, and pail and shovel, and spilled it out for everyone to share. We made friends of all ages. We became known as the family that always had chalk. We even got 3-D chalk that you wore special glasses to see in its vibrating neon glory.

If this makes it sound like I did every single thing myself homemade and by myself—I didn’t. I hired babysitters and asked for help from grandmas and my partner. I used the TV in times of need.

Was our first sprinkler summer a success? I still had doubts that summer before first grade. Then one August day, Stella and I sat outside the Natural History Museum finishing our peanut butter sandwiches. Three yellow school buses pulled up, and a counselor marched dozens of kids off the bus. The first busload wore red shirts; the second busload, orange; and the third, green.

“Do you wish you could be with them?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “Or maybe just for three days or five minutes.”

I laughed.

“What color shirt should we wear for our camp, Mama?”

“Whatever design you want,” I said. “It’s all yours.”


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