- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 26, 2003

Every evening Vincent and Susanne Knaus sit down in their Springfield home to pore over their stamp collections. They compare, identify, file and study their treasures via this hobby that they both have enjoyed since early childhood.

Their boys, 6-year-old Michael and 5-year-old Daniel, often participate, lobbing questions: Who is this person on this stamp and what did he do? Where is this country? How are the stamps designed and printed? The answers come in the form of short lessons in history, geography, technology.

Every month, the family attends a meeting of the Springfield Stamp Club. There, a youth leader encourages the children with projects designed to intrigue the emerging philatelists, maybe playing bingo to win stamp-related prizes or designing personal stamps.

It's all time well spent, says Mr. Knaus, a stay-at-home father.

"Stamps reach into so many different aspects of our everyday lives," he says, "and spending time together is great. The boys ask questions, and we can sit down and talk about things. They develop organizational skills, and they learn how to take care of delicate objects."

Many of clinical psychologist Lisa Meier's parent-clients wonder how to strengthen bonds with their children, she says.

"'What is quality time?' they're asking," says Ms. Meier, who is on the staff at Vienna Women's Center. "One of the things I emphasize is following activities and interests. It's very important because it's really a place to enhance a parent-child relationship."

Hobbies and recreation provide an unparalleled creative outlet free from the boundaries children and adults may find in school or workplace settings. Children grow in a safe environment through play, one in which they can learn to solve problems without serious consequences.

"My kids have had a lot of fun with stamp collecting," Mr. Knaus says. "I look forward to the future when their attention spans increase and they can spend more time with me doing this."

Many benefits

One of the many opportunities provided by sharing hobbies and interests lies in challenging roles within the family, says Russell E. Brayley, a professor in George Mason University's department of health, fitness and recreation resources.

"There are times when it's not appropriate for my son to challenge my authority, but he loves to challenge me in pingpong without harming the political balance at home," Mr. Brayley says.

Bob Aldrich frequently is challenged by sons Dan, 12, and Adam, 8 but it's all a game. The District lawyer has been playing chess since he was a young child and introduced his boys to the game when they were preschoolers.

"When Dan was 4 or so … I started showing him how to play the game," Mr. Aldrich says. "He was immediately interested, but at that age he wasn't ready to play the real game, so we made up a game where the object was just to get the pieces to the other side of the board, which got him familiar with the pieces. … Eventually we graduated to the real game. I'd have to come up with ways to handicap myself either give him a piece or two or put a time limit on myself for each move."

Dan and Adam each play chess with their friends, within school clubs and, of course, with their father several times a week.

"It was a gift that they turned out to have that common interest with me, and it's something we can share that we all get a lot out of," he says. "It's great to have something like that with your kids to have something where you can almost be equal partners instead of just a parent. And chess is good training for the mind."

Parents always are interested in helping their children learn, but many don't realize that their children learn through play, says Susan Kalish, director of communications for the National Recreation and Park Association.

"It just isn't as painful," she says, "and families would be much healthier if they played with their children. As you play Parcheesi with your kid you might find out they are having trouble in school or they want to be a rocket scientist. People let their guard down when they're playing, and it really does bring generations together."

A child's healthy obsession with all things railroad has joined the generations in the Smith household in Leesburg, Va. Mother Peggy Smith says her 4-year-old son, Peter, is crazy about trains, which has awarded her and her husband, Jan, a "sure thing in parenting. It just gives us something that is fun to do together not so much playing with trains, but talking about them."

Not only does Peter wish to discuss trains, but he also likes to draw trains, ride aboard trains, make himself into imaginary trains, and play with the pieces in his Lionel collection pint-size replicas of the real thing.

That's all fine with his parents, who "didn't pay attention to trains at all before," says his mother. "As we started to get interested in them, I learned a little bit about them because my son wanted to know about them. My Dad got into it, and my husband got into it."

Michael Craig, co-owner of Leesburg Hobbies and Collectibles, a shop that Peter enjoys visiting several times weekly, says many baby boomers grew up playing with trains.

"It was a big part of the life they shared with their dads, and now they're sharing it with their children," he says.

One generation to the next

Play and recreation in society and in families is very important for passing on culture and heritage, points out Mr. Brayley, the GMU professor.

As budding musicians, Geoffrey Litt, 10, and his brother Henry, 8, are heirs to a talent and pastime descended from their grandmother, a professional musician, through their father, David Litt.

Geoffrey plays the cello, Henry plays the violin, and their father plays the viola. When Mr. Litt's sister, also a violinist, rolls into town, the family has the makings of a string quartet.

The boys study weekly at the Washington Conservatory of Music and practice their skills at home. Those sessions frequently include joint rehearsals with Mr. Litt, a District attorney. Last year, father and son played a duet at Henry's first recital.

"They enjoy playing with their father," Mr. Litt says. "It's a nice thing we can do together. [Music] has been an important part of my life, and it's something I'd really like to share with them. They can take it into the future and derive a lot of pleasure from it."

As families do activities together, they're communicating a huge plus, Mr. Brayley says.

"One of the biggest problems in families is that they're not communicating because they're not spending time together," he says. "I don't think we can underestimate the importance of family recreation because it shows children and spouses that we care. It's a way of saying, 'Hey, I care about you to take the time to be with you.'"

Family recreation also is a good way to protect family members from what Mr. Brayley terms "harmful amusement," which he defines as "a very base form of recreation that doesn't necessarily challenge or involve creativity, such as the Internet, TV and computer games.

Instead, he says, make recreation a joint activity as opposed to a parallel activity such as TV viewing.

Sue Myers and daughters Katie, 10, and Molly, 8, of Arlington plan special time together every month to help out at their local animal shelter. On any given Saturday the three might be found stroking cats or playing with dogs all in a bid to keep the animals socialized and adoptable.

Mrs. Myers, a stay-at-home mother, says the family's volunteer time actually is a relaxing activity.

"We hustle around all week, and this is a chance for us to slow down and help the shelter care for these little animals," she says. "The girls initiated it. I had to undergo a day of training, but they said it was something they wanted to do. It was totally driven by them."

Biking is one of many joint activities for the Hoehns of Falls Church. The family of four, which includes mother, Robin, father, Andrew, and sons John, 14, and Sam, 11, frequently hits the Washington and Old Dominion trail, fitting in bike rides around hiking, camping, canoeing and Scouting.

They've joined other family members to ride in the Tour de Chesapeake, an annual biking venture in Maryland, and last summer cycled 250 miles together along the Danube River in Austria.

"Biking gives us time together," Mrs. Hoehn says. "It gives us time to have adventures, and I think it bonds us through having adventures. Whether it's a good ride where the sun is shining or a bad one through the rain, you're creating memories you'll never forget."

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