Monday, January 23, 2012

Butting Out of Childhood Play

As parents we are constantly concerned about our children; their development, their happiness, their interaction with the outside world, their interaction with their own internal world. We read books, pore over games, enroll them in activities and set up the endless line of play dates and fun group times. Through these actions we are showing our offspring how much we love them. We adore them so much that we want them to have all of the things, do all of the things, see all of the things, experience all of the things that we never did but swore that we wanted to. And through this constant hum of movement and agitation generated by our overwhelming display of love and concern we are stressing our kids out, smothering them and their innate abilities to lead themselves, and sometimes creating the vicious cycle of a child's inability to play without adult assistance or interference.

How is a parent to prevent this from happening you might ask?!

Well the first and easiest way to do this is to back off. It is really that simple. Let them guide themselves. Think back to when you were young. Remember the outdoor games that you used to play filled with imaginary imagery and wild adventures. Now remember what would happen the minute an adult would even enter the suddenly all of the imaginary things would disappear as the adult started inquiring what you were doing more an interrogation than play, how maybe the game even ended here because a grown up had messed up the fun. Our children are built to entertain themselves. They are hard wired for imagination, fun, joy, play and all of those sweet and lovely pieces of childhood. They can see a house or a submarine in a laundry basket even if all we can see is that the basket might tip over or break. They know the value of dirt and pine cones and cardboard boxes and blankets strewn over chairs to create a cavern kingdom. We need to allow them the privacy to enjoy these places without our constant interference.

Well how do I know if they getting what they need mentally, emotionally, and /or socially if I don't structure their free time?!

Good question. By simply existing in a happy, healthy, and supportive environment children have everything they need to be be mentally stimulated, emotionally challenged, and socially functional. Children do some of their most important work in the quiet spaces of life. When you find them alone in their rooms talking to themselves, even sometimes arguing alone, don't fret. They are practicing how to deal with uncomfortable or stressful interactions in a safe environment. They are trying on behaviors, attitudes and resolutions to problems in a way that allows them to absorb the information and put it away in themselves for when it might  be needed.  These quiet spaces are when they might be really understanding the nuances of reading, might be creating a spectacular piece of art, might be righting a song to go along with their unstructured guitar strumming, might even be creating a world that might one day populate the pages of a best selling book! These quiet spaces where we leave our children alone are the places where they are discovering who they are as individuals, who they are in relation to their siblings and parents, who they are in relation to the world at large.

So does this mean I shouldn't play with my child?!

Gracious no! Play with them joyfully and unabashedly. But allow them to have private time too. Instead of following children around asking what they want to do or trying to force games on them when they would rather be alone try some of the following...
1. Have a family game time set up; and each week a different family member gets to pick the game. This way everyone feels like an equal and they are more likely to be excited about playing.
2. Leave games (like checkers, decks of cards, musical instruments, even basic art supplies) out in neat but accessible spaces that are frequented by all people in the house. This way children, and parents, are more likely to stop and play a game, draw a picture, build a house of cards, or do an impromptu drum circle. Out of site is really out of mind and when stuff has to be hunted down the moment of spontaneity  often escapes us.
3. Follow your children's cues. If they seem lonely, sad, bored...sidle up to them and sit quietly without asking what is wrong. I have found that if I do this my children either ask me what I need, which then leads to my response of, "Oh nothing, just checking in with you", which then leads to either me being told that they are happily playing or them asking me if I wish to join them, or they say mom go away you are messing up the game.
4. Most importantly play with them when they ask you to play. I know this is not always possible, we parents can be very easily overwhelmed with life stuff. However, when we are unable to play we should explain why and try to set a date such as, "Right now mom is on a business call. Can we play when I am finished with my call?" Usually the child is happy to compromise and mom can continue her call. Be a parent of your word though. If you get off the phone and go do more work instead of playing with your child they will begin to not trust your words and they will be hurt and cease to ask you to play.

In short let's let our children be children and let's remember to join them as often as we can to be big children ourselves!


  1. You rock, I love this post... It is so important to give free play time to kids... even babies! I see these parents constantly entertaining their babies, and I wonder when do those kids ever get the chance to explore and learn about the world on their own? I know I get stares sometimes when I just let Victoria play on her own for a good twenty minutes without interaction from me, but I know it is good for her soul!
    You rock! I'm so linking this post to one of my own in the next week!

    1. I had similar experiences. I also get dirty looks when they fall and I don't swoop in with a medic kit. Bumps and bruises are as good for self growth as self interaction. I love that Victoria has been gifted that by you!