Is It Play Time Yet?
Sometimes I feel like a terrible mother because I don’t play with my children.
Don’t get me wrong, I spend a lot of time with them. We read books together or color or play board games. I just don’t engage in imaginary play with them all that often.
As a kid, I had a vivid imagination. I lived in a world of my own creation, one that I dragged my siblings into. But as much as my parents were very involved in our lives, they did not share in our imaginary games either.
I babysat through much of my teenage years, always creating little games for my charges to play. We spent hours coming up with new worlds to inhabit while I was with them. I always assumed that I’d be the same way as a parent.
As an educator, I spent a lot of time reading articles about the state of childhood today. I read about the effects of helicopter parenting, of technology and social media and of being overly scheduled.
My own childhood memories are filled with hours of unsupervised time. We lived outside during the summer months, wandering our neighborhood and taking parent-free walks to the large meadow near our house. I’m sure we checked in with our mom, but I know we were allowed to be outside as long as we wanted to without having any organized activity that we had to engage in.
That childhood fueled my development as a writer. Free time allowed my imagination to flourish, leading to my desire to tell and write stories.
Play comes naturally for children. While playing, children use their senses to explore the world around them. As parents, we are nervous about free time. What if our child is bored? What if they are whining? Do we have an activity for them? Should we use Pinterest to come up with some sort of craft?
It’s hard to watch our child engaging in what we might see as mindless spinning around or taking a ton of toys and putting them in an empty bag. What exactly are they doing, we think? Is this a worthwhile use of their time? How will this help them get into college?
But Scientific American magazine says, “Nearly all developmental psychologists, neuroscientists and education experts recommend play for kids 0-7 as the best way to nurture kids’ development and ready them for academic success later in life.”
So what exactly is play? Playing has to be fun. It has to be something a child chooses to do, usually spontaneously. Children go all in, fully engaging in whatever they are dreaming up. Play is about the process, not the product. Play usually involves make-believe.
Research shows that “Children of all ages love to play, and it gives them opportunities to explore the world, interact with others, express and control emotions, develop their symbolic and problem-solving abilities, and practice emerging skills. Research shows the links between play and foundational capacities such as memory, self-regulation, oral language abilities, social skills, and success in school.”
As adults, it can be a struggle to facilitate such play. How can we provide a stimulating environment for play while also allowing the child to play independently? How can we trust our children to develop the way we want them to if we just let them play aimlessly?
I learned to allow play to happen when I realized I had to emphasize self-care. I don’t always feel like getting down on the floor and playing with them. Sometimes I want to read a book or take a shower or even do dishes.
When my girls are done eating breakfast, I let them loose to play while I clean up after the meal. This serves two purposes: they are playing without my supervision and I have a clean kitchen, while also having a little mental time for myself.
They do not know the word “bored” yet. Granted, they’re both too young to have a full vocabulary, but they know the toys they like to play with or the games they like to invent and they’re fully capable of entertaining themselves. Sometimes I come out of the shower to hear complete silence, only to find them sitting and looking at books together or playing with their dollhouse. Sometimes they just like to dance on my bed or cover themselves with stickers.
I try to be thoughtful about how many toys surround them or what the quality of the toys are. I think about what interests them. My goal here is to create an environment where they can look around and see what they can do on their own. I want them to create, experiment and explore. I want them to be curious, confident, self-reliant and resilient.
As a teacher, I was trained in the Harkness Method, a teaching philosophy focused on student-centered discussions. At first it was hard to step back and let the students run the discussion, but eventually I learned to be a member of the conversation, rather than the leader of it. I knew when to step in to answer a difficult question or direct the discussion elsewhere if we were running out of a topic or even to stop a heated argument.
I’ve realized that I can apply the Harkness Method to my parenting approach. Like my students, I want to encourage my children to solve problems and think creatively without my guiding their every move. I want to let them figure out how to play together and alone. I want them to be comfortable being alone and learning to self-soothe and self-entertain.
I’m not always successful. We have places we have to be: preschool or my gym class or a playdate. There are times every day when I have to rush them out the door. I’m not sure how much unstructured time they will have when I return to work.
But in the meantime, I am going to continue to offer time and space for them to play on their own at home and hope that when they grow up, they have the same sort of cherished memories of unsupervised play that I had from going up.
And if that means that I also get some childfree, quiet time, all the better!