I was cosy and relaxed on my walk to the park, watching the trees sway back and forth in the wind as I rode along in my stroller.
And then BRIGHT! Everything is bright! And SCRATCHY. Scratchy grass beneath my feet. I like grass. And look, the playground. Oh I love the playground.
But there are some kids. Some big kids. And I’ll just wait a minute and watch them before I join in. I’m happy to wait. And there’s this nice grass to play with, and look an ant! Where are you going ant?
“Do you want to climb up here?”
Mummy wants me to climb now. But look at this ant! And it has ant friends, and they’re all walking in a line. That’s funny!
“Come and feel the sand!”
Oh, I have to feel the sand. But the ants aren’t walking to the sand, they’re going this way, and I kind of want to follow. Where do they go?
“Why don’t you go down the slide?”
Ah! And now Mummy’s picked me up and the ants are so tiny and I can’t see them from up here and what if I lose them and ‘NOOOO!!!!’
I’m not supposed to hit. But I wasn’t hitting. I just wanted to get down. I was trying to see my ant friends.
“Climb this! Put your foot here!”
But I can’t follow my ant friends anymore because I’m supposed to be climbing.
“Come on, hurry up, slide down, it’s fun.”
It’s high up here! And maybe I can find my ants. Except there’s no time again because I have to slide. But the slide scares me a bit. The slide is big, and I want to wait and watch how the other kids do it first.
“Go on, the other kids want a turn too, I’ll help you, I’m waiting”
But I have to go first, and Mummy is waiting.
“Good job! Now let’s go on the swing!”
The smallest things fascinate a child, don’t they? And it’s sad that as adults we lose that ability to be in the moment, to notice and appreciate the little things. We marvel at a child’s ability to play for hours with a stick, or the way they stop to smell the flowers, seeing the world through new eyes. These are beautiful qualities and we lament their passing. But I can’t help but think that it’s more than just age that extinguishes them. It’s adults too, trying to rush children through life, giving them subtle and not so subtle messages about what’s ‘really’ important (according to us).
The example above is just one very common one. It is the rare child these days that is allowed to fully explore their own environment without adult direction or interruption. Children at the park are constantly directed to ‘look at this’, ‘have a go at that’, ‘climb up here’ and ‘smile for a picture’ while you’re doing it. And then when it’s time to go before they’ve explored anything of their own interest we wonder why they have a meltdown.
When we constantly interrupt a child’s own play or wondering to tell them what we think they should be doing, what messages are we sending them? When they ignore us and continue on their way only to be physically picked up and redirected to an adult initiated activity, what must they think?
Maybe that we don’t respect them? Maybe that their choices aren’t as important as ours? Maybe that hurrying to see everything is more important than enjoying just one thing fully? Maybe that there is no time for daydreaming? Maybe that their own interests aren’t valid? Maybe that we don’t trust them to occupy themselves?
And then we complain that they can’t play independently, and need us to constantly entertain them. They were born very capable of entertaining themselves until we trained them out of it. You can’t expect kids to have great concentration if they’re always being interrupted. You can’t expect them to be able to entertain themselves if they’ve always been entertained.
Self-directed, unstructured play time is invaluable for children. In a world of competition and ‘getting ahead,’ lots of parents feel the pressure to be actively giving their children lots of experiences, including play. But it’s not about giving children experiences, it’s about letting them have experiences. Treating them like real people and honoring their choices. Sometimes we just need to get out of the play!
I’m NOT saying don’t ever play with your children. Playing together is fabulous! But it’s also ok not to play with them most of the time. It’s ok to wait for an invitation to play. You don’t have to get involved and encourage them to play in ways you think are beneficial. You just have to realise that ALL play is beneficial. Any way they decide to play is ok. Play, like children, does not need to be controlled.
So what’s your job at the park? Not much! Just watch, or read a book. Or if you want to play yourself, then go for it. Personally, I like the swings.
Let them be free to choose their own activities, whether that is playing with the playground equipment or not. There’s no need to interrupt, distract, or redirect. Let them know that you respect their choices and their interests by leaving them to pursue them.
Don’t teach them to rush through life. Don’t teach them to always look to others for direction instead of looking inside of themselves. Get out of the play!