I’m writing from Georgian Bay.  As I type these words, the sun, still radiant enough to have dazzled my eyes, is setting like an emperor retiring for the night.  A heron, in silhouette against it, heads for its nest.  It’s quiet, save for the soft lapping of lake water, and the occasional shrill call of a seagull making a meal over an ill-fated shadfly.  I’m tired and sunburned, and in honour of Gordon Lightfoot’s Christian Island, which is not too far from here, I will get myself a whisky of the Highlands shortly.

It’s beautiful, and it’s fun.

Of course, we pretty much expect things to be fun here in Cottage Country.   This is Canada’s iconic outdoor playground.  It occupies a space in the Canadian imaginary that we all recognize, whether or not we’ve actually spent time here.  When it comes to unpacking fun, Georgian Bay deserves a lot of attention.  But today I want to focus on one small part of it:  Toady.

No surprises here:  Toady is a toad.  My children found him (her?) at the beach today and they were transported with delight.  They spent 45 minutes catching Toady, making sand beds for Toady, encouraging Toady to jump on to their hands, singing to Toady and trying to find things for Toady to eat.  They’d probably still be trying to play with Toady if I hadn’t eventually called time-out to give the wee creature a rest.  Other than a minimum of supervision to ensure they didn’t accidentally squish Toady in the course of their ministrations, the children were rapt and had no need for their parents.

After dinner, I asked my daughter about Toady.  She said, “Toady was fun!”  Now, this had been pretty much evident from their total focus on it, and from my two year old literally shaking with excitement and squealing every time the thing made a move, but given that I’m researching fun, it was interesting to hear her say it.  I asked her what was fun about it, and she gave me a withering look and said, “He hopped.”

And that is the lesson from Toady.  He hopped.  Of course, this is the sort of thing that children say and it’s perhaps yet another sign of my over analytical adult sensibilities that I read anything into it, but at the same time, it’s a sublime answer.  In “he hopped”, I hear that Toady didn’t need any added design dimensions, or educational underpinnings, or focus group discussions, to be just perfect.  Rather, Toady embodied fun.  The children found him in the course of an inherently fun activity, exploration.  And the unwitting fellow, perhaps to his chagrin, possessed many of the properties of fun things:  he moved (and unpredictably at that), finding him was a rare and special event for my children, he possessed a certain enchantment for them and there was a certain inversion of power in that they were so much bigger than he.  He was just inherently interesting, and we all tend to experience interesting things as fun.

All that said, I’m trying to think why my children were so much more excited by Toady than they are when they see animals at the zoo.  Don’t get me wrong, they love the zoo.  And zoo animals contain many of the same fun properties I was describing above:  seeing them is rare and special, they move in interesting ways, and so on.  Yet I’ve never seen my children transfixed before a zoo display, or so excited by a given animal’s behaviour, as they were by humble Toady (and this includes the time that a polar bear seemed to be trying to break down a glass wall in order to eat my son).  On the contrary:  they happily move from display to display, admiring the charm of the otter, grace of the snow leopard, or fierceness of the mountain gorilla, like people grazing at a buffet when they’re not really hungry.

So, I’m left wondering if Toady was particularly fun because the children encountered him in a context where the foreground and the background of the experience were united in a meaningful whole.  I mean that in the foreground was…Toady, with his most excellent hopping.  And in the background are numerous things that frame and bestow meaning to the foreground.  There’s the fact that my daughter has spent time in this precise spot every summer since she was born, that we are cultivating a knowledge of this landscape in the children and teaching them to understand that this is their place, that they know that their mother and aunts and uncles played in these waters (and perhaps with Toady’s ancestors!) as children, and that their family is here with them.  And, of course, they are outside with Toady.  They are seeing that the landscape is full of living things that also make claims to the beach, woods and water.

By contrast, the zoo offers a foreground of exciting and often rare animals in approximations of their habitats.  But there is nothing in the background that grounds and holds my children in a way that bestows further meaning on the event.  In fact, although many zoos today are refuges for animals and educational wonders, the reality is that the background they mask can actually be quite ugly: animal trade, loss of habitat, animal rescue and so on.  These are important things to learn about for they too are part of our world, but the lesson from Toady might be that we cannot expect to experience the same intensity of fun when the background and foreground are so divided.  Put them together though, and we have deep fun in all its richness.  We switch-on.