Over 20 years ago, on a drive home from a Black Hills camping trip, my daughter–4 at the time–grabbed a handful of toothpicks from a countertop dispenser as we left a diner.
Back on I-90 zooming toward home, I watched her play with them in the rear-view mirror.
At first she fiddled with them–pocking her fingers, rolling the bunch of toothpicks in her hands, placing them between her finger and toes, dragging one up her arm.
Then, using a notebook as a flat surface, she formed shapes–squares, rectangles, triangles, rhomboids.
Over thirty minutes later, her exploratory play turned dramatic when the toothpicks became a family. One toothpick was Dad, she chewed the end off another to make Mom, a third toothpick was broken in half to create children. Her lap, and everyplace she could reach in the truck, became their world. More toothpicks became characters–a dog, a cat, a buffalo, an alien. Gum wrappers became blankets, her pockets became bedrooms, her left boot became a car.
Her play paused periodically for conversation with the rest of the family or to watch the countryside fly past, but she was deep in play with those toothpicks for a couple hours.