Let the children play

One of the interesting things about being a stay-at-home parent is that, unless you are literally staying at home all the time, it puts you in position to observe a lot of other parents and their kids.  We have a couple of regular haunts — the local playground, our fantastic public library — where we get to see a lot of other small children and their caregivers. And really intrigues me in these other child-adult groupings is watching how they interact around the issue of play.

Play interests me. In my former life I worked for several years as a nanny, and so long before I became a parent I started reading parenting books, articles about child development, and the like, as part of a sort of ad hoc professional development plan for myself.  One of the authors I’ve very much come to appreciate is Peter Gray, a psychologist who writes extensively on the related topics of play and self-directed learning. (His blog can be found here; his book Free to Learn is available at retailers near you and is well worth a read.) Gray can be quite eloquent on the subject of children playing, as shown in the opening paragraph of his post “How to Ruin Children’s Play: Supervise, Praise, Invervene“:

My soul has been stirred by many of nature’s wonders–by orange and yellow leaves sparkling in the autumn sun, by mallards landing softly on still waters at dusk, by clouds drifting by as I lay on my back gazing upward. But, of all of nature’s scenes that I have enjoyed and pondered, none have enthralled me more than those of children playing — playing on their own, without adults guiding or interrupting them. Intervening in children’s play seems to me to be like shooting those mallards that are landing on the water.

He goes on to write about two long instances of child-directed play he was fortunate enough to observe without interrupting, the first between a large group of multi-aged children, and the latter the solo play of a young boy doing a craft project. (The entire post is a quick read and worth your time.) His point in giving an account of those instances of play is that they were fortunately not ruined by the adult involvement that we are usually so quick to thrust upon our children. No adults were needed to make sure that each of the fourteen children had their fair turn in the game they were playing; nobody rushed the young boy to finish his craft or to complete it in a “better” way. They were simply, gloriously, left to play on their own terms.

This is not to say that there’s never any need for adult supervision or intervention when children are playing. I interrupt my children’s play because we are working on things like sharing and not screaming and I know you are building a tower but your sister is younger than you and knocking things down is how she plays right now — not to mention the pee in the potty is not for splashing in and hey get off the dining room table and (constantly) why are you naked?! There are moments — perhaps many moments — when adult involvement is good and necessary. But I think we presume far too much when we start assuming that it is always good and always necessary.

I see this tendency when I watch other parents/caregivers interact with their children (generally the under-five set as that is whom we encounter most frequently). There’s a little boy around Anselm’s age we see relatively often at our regular park; I’ve seen his grandmother berate him for picking up the mulch or trying to climb up the slide. A friend and I took our kids to the science centre last week; in the kids’ zone they had boxes of duplo out, along with a plaque on the wall reminding parents that there’s no right way to play with building blocks. At the library last week I watched a young girl who was probably around a year and a half old pick a toy she liked and start playing with it; her mother, noticing this, promptly scooped the child into her lap and started asking her questions about what she was doing and directing her interaction with the toy. I see things like this happening all. the. time. Why do we keep doing this?

Why don’t we trust our children to play? It can’t be because they don’t know how; the play instinct is incredibly strong. A young child who does not play is either dealing with some major trauma, or one sick puppy. Play is what children do. It’s the way in which they explore, grapple with, and understand the world. Barring  instances of actual physical danger, it’s certainly not something we need to teach them how to do, or how to do properly.

Perhaps that word — properly — is a key here. We can get ourselves quite worked up when a child isn’t playing the way we think they should be playing: when a toddler decides to test his might by trying to climb up the slide, or tries to build a castle out of mulch; when a child uses a doll like it’s a football, makes a tower out of puzzle pieces instead of putting it together, or gleefully colours outside all the lines; when our notion of how the world should work and our own importance in directing that work is offended.

Sometimes, strangely, I think it’s because we don’t want to miss out. We want every moment to be a teachable moment. Our cultural zeitgeist dictates that a good parent is an involved parent, and we want to be good parents. We want to feel as if we are important to our children. And we want, sometimes desperately, to know and understand and be part of every single little bit of our children’s lives. Spending time with our children is lovely. But we mustn’t be so focused on our own involvement that we miss the opportunity to give our children the gift of a little benign neglect.

Case in point: the sibling experience. My brothers and I had a rich, imaginative, collaborative play life that our parents largely knew nothing about. This was, I think, as it should be. It wasn’t as if we deliberately decided to keep things secret from our parents; rather, the idea of including them in our play was so ludicrous it simply never occurred to us. Our parents I’m sure did a lot of the stop hitting each other kind of interference when necessary, but we were largely left to sort out our play, and therefore our relationships, on our own. I wish no less for my children. Anselm and Perpetua are finally at an age where they are playing, really playing with each other and it’s a joy to behold. Of course there are bumps in the road. Of course I have to play referee sometimes. But as they are building a relational foundation that, I hope, will sustain them for many years to come — all through play. Who knows what they will miss out on if I try to get too involved?

The call, therefore, is to constantly work to relax a little more, to let go a little more. To give the squabble just one more minute before we intervene, to see if they can work it out on their own. To stop worrying about the right way to use the playground equipment. To do more observation and less direction. And, above all, to simply let the children play. Perhaps one day they will even thank us for it.