Yesterday afternoon when I couldn't sit at the computer any longer, I went out and resumed collecting leaves for the sheet mulch in the front yard. This is not a small mulch bed... I estimate it's about 200 square feet, and I want to pile the leaves a foot deep, so that's 200 cubic feet of leaves. Since our yard has no trees, this has meant collecting leaves from people I meet on Freecycle (who are very glad to get rid of their leaves, but very forgetful about telling me when they're ready for pickup) and occasionally raking neighbors' leaves out of the gutter. I know the gutter leaves are not as clean, but at least one study has shown they're safe for composting, and I'm wiling to take the chance to get a bunch of free organic matter in the ground.
In any case, I went out front with a rake and a plastic tub. When I finished our own gutter, I went next-door, where 5th-grader Stephanie and preschooler Tatiana were playing, and asked if I could have their leaves. Stephanie shyly assured me that I was welcome to them. A few minutes later, their next-door neighbor (2 doors down from us) Jennifer, also a 5th grader and tomboy, bounced over to ask if she could help. I gave her the rake and went to get another tub so I could ferry the leaves while she raked.
A few minutes later, Stephanie and Tatiana had joined Jennifer with a rake of their own, and they were filling the two tubs as fast as I could empty them. They got to the corner and kept going for a block around the corner. Then they went the length of our block and around the corner on the other end. When they got to the storm drain, Jennifer lay down in the street (while Stephanie watched for cars) to reach in up to her shoulder and pull out handfuls of slimy leaves. "It smells like a sewer in here!" she said happily.
Across the street from the storm drain, three doors down from our house in the opposite direction from Jennifer's, was a mother about my age with two girls about Tatiana's age. They had just got home, and the two girls were eager to find out what the other kids were doing, but their mother wouldn't let them cross the street. She made a few remarks to me about how I'd enlisted the neighborhood's help, but I couldn't tell if she was encouraging or critical. In any case, her kids were not free to help.
By the time the kids finally got tired, we had been at it for almost two hours. I felt like I should give them something, although part of me wondered if that would spoil their fun by making it seem like work. I didn't have enough change to give each of them a five, so I wound up offering them each a dollar and a promise of more later. Jennifer declined hers, and Stephanie followed suit, but Tatiana said, "I'll take it!" I encouraged them to come to our house on Halloween, and Stephanie's face fell... I asked, "Do you not celebrate Halloween?" and she shook her head. "I do!" cried Jennifer, whose house has enough decorations for the entire street. (She had told me while we worked that they've had trouble with theft from their lawn, it's such an attraction.) She invited Jessie and me to her family's Halloween party on Saturday.
I went indoors to cook dinner, and a few minutes later, Jennifer asked if she and the other girls could "balance on the trench" -- meaning walk back and forth on the 45-foot-long pile of clay in our back yard. I said, "Sure!" Jennifer had gotten the idea from watching me try to smush the clay back down into its hole with my own weight, so if they can turn it into a game, so much the better! Later, as I was picking herbs for dinner, Tatiana skipped up to me and said she'd had fun helping.
It makes me really happy, not only that I can get a bunch of help for my projects, but that there are still parents who trust their kids to spend 2 hours playing outdoors unattended, and that there are still kids who want to do so. Realistically, I know the older girls are likely to get absorbed into other things in the next year or two, but the more they learn about gardening in the meantime the better, and if they can get Tatiana into it, she'll be a good helper for years to come!