Once a week, we have an eighteen month-old friend at our house for the day. She is, as most her age are, quite excellent at calling our attention to sources of delight we might otherwise miss. For the past several weeks, she has been most enraptured by two things – cats and round objects. She communicates mostly in sign language at this point, and so the signs for cat and ball are well-used.
It’s not hard to understand what might be so enjoyable about a cat, or any other four-legged creature, but we’ve been speculating about what makes a ball so much fun. It doesn’t seem to be the throwing, in the case of this young person, at least not entirely. Plus, you can throw all sorts of other things too and they don’t get nearly as much attention as the ball gets.
Maybe it’s how the ball behaves. Nothing else moves like a ball does. If you set it down on a surface that isn’t entirely level, it’ll find its own momentum and start wandering all over the place if there’s enough variation in terrain. Nothing else will do this but a thing with at least a round edge to help it along. In our living room the floor is not even close to level, so if you set a ball down pretty much anywhere it’ll set off on an apparently drunken journey and end up, inevitably, in a corner. If you didn’t know better (“better”), it’d be easy to think that it was alive, or whatever classification you’d give to things that seem to have character and creativity before you knew the world alive.
Oliver Sacks used to carry a ball around with him in his briefcase: “My main neurological tool is the ball,” he says. “You can learn a lot from how the patients play – and may patients who will do nothing else will open up to a gently tossed ball.”
My sense is that he chose the ball because it’s such simple access to play – tossing a thing back and forth. But the more we’ve been thinking and talking about this love and fascination and we watch it unfold for such a young child, the more I wonder about it as a thing that links us up with the physical world, the physics of the world, and invites us to engage with it as no other object could.