If you're a parent, I'm sure you'll recognize this scene from my own life:
I'm working at something or other—straightening up around the home, cooking dinner, folding laundry—or maybe I'm distracting myself with reading, web surfing, or just generally zoning out. From somewhere far below, way down there on the floor, there arises a demand for attention.
"Look at this! See what I made, what I did, what I can do? Watch me!"
Quite often, this urgent plea is accompanied by an object of some kind suddenly thrust inches from my nose.
I find myself pulled out of this kind of self-absorption far too often, and I'm sure I'm not alone. It can be difficult to carve out space and time to devote to play, given the number of things that demand our attention (not to mention those things that reward our distraction).
Of course, I know that I should be there on the floor with my little guy, not off in my own world. There is a ton of literature on the benefits of family play for emotional attachment and cognitive development. I'm constantly coming across articles that discuss the ways in which play encourages creative problem-solving, fosters abstract reasoning, and cultivates social awareness.
That play is essential for childhood development is beyond question. After all, it is the primary means by which kids engage with the world. And it seems pretty obvious to me, from personal experience alone, that playing together as a family reinforces the loving connections between children and adults, opens up an emotional space of deep trust, and thus facilitates learning.
That said, I don't feel that another blog article will convince anybody to recognize truths that are intuitively apparent—even if many of us have trouble putting those truths into everyday practice. Instead, I would like to reflect on a couple of things that I've learned over the past five-and-a-half years playing with my son. Mostly, these things had to do with coming to grips with the limits of my control over things.
Getting Off Track
I first began to realize the lesson my son was teaching me when he was a toddler and we would play with Thomas the Tank Engine. On television, the Island of Sodor, where Thomas and his various locomotive friends do their best to be Really Useful to stodgy British railroad barons, is a fairly peaceful place. In the real world of a two-and-a-half-year-old's playtime, however, Sodor is especially prone to natural disasters. Despite my best efforts to plan out and lay track for the most sophisticated rail systems, they could never withstand the gales and quakes of toddler feet.
I imagine that there are toddlers out there who recognize the pains their parents take in assembling track layouts for their trains to ride. My son was not one of them. After a good deal of frustration, I was finally able to recognize that the calamities he wrought upon Thomas and Friends were part of the game. I built; he destroyed. If I tried to steer the object of play in another direction, one which would keep my own hard work intact, we would soon move on to something else. Any feats of engineering I produced had to be ends in themselves if I wanted to enjoy myself.
For the most part, I have found that, to make the most of my playtime with my son, it's best to keep any expectations or agendas I might have to a bare minimum, if not abandon them altogether. Any attempts to order things too strictly only serve to antagonize the two of us.
This extends, too, to ideas I might have about how things should be grouped. For my son, play is always about storytelling, even if the narrative is largely incoherent and haphazard. The events can go in just about any direction, and usually involve whatever toys and objects happen to capture his attention in the moment. There is no reason why the lamest SpongeBob toy from a McDonald's Happy Meal wouldn't encounter one of the intricately detailed knights and dragons made by Schleich. Playmobil figures regularly find themselves in worlds built of Lego, and vice versa. Whatever pushes the story in a new, exciting direction is fair game. The sense we tend to have as adults, that there need to be reasonable boundaries and categories, only serves to stifle creativity.
Play is not subject to strict control. As soon as it is restricted too much, or directed toward too specific an end, it isn't play anymore. Which is why I'm hesitant to say too much about the benefits of play. If we play, or encourage play, in order to reap a particular benefit, we actually defeat the purpose, and ultimately risk scuttling the very benefits we hoped to achieve.
Children's play is messy, not only in the sense that it makes a physical mess of the living room, but also in the sense that it makes a mess of the ways in which we, as adults, tend to think, set goals for ourselves, and act accordingly.
The best kind of play subverts our grown-up agendas, which often prevent us from engaging with our children at their level and on their terms. We would all do well to remember that it's down there, on the floor, in the mess, that living and learning really happen.