A while back I had a very interesting comment on a post about imaginative play…
Cathy from This Week With the Kids said…
“…I have been writing a series on play on my blog, based on Stuart Brown’s book “play”, and put up a post this week on what innovative, creative and imaginative play is. To me it is play that a child fully conjures – no material set-ups from parents….”
Cathy’s comment really got me thinking.
Is true, pure, creative and imaginative play something that comes entirely and only from the child with no adult influence at all?
I think Cathy’s point is a very valid one.
Children should be free to play when, where and how they want to. This type of ‘free play’ leads to creativity, imagination, innovation and learning that can not be reproduced by adult lead activities with pre-defined goals and outcomes. This is the type of learning I promoted when I was teaching preschool and it is the type of life I want my children to have. Open ended, child lead play is important, hugely important, and often adults either don’t understand or find it difficult to really trust that free play is ‘a child’s work’.
An adult rarely needs to get involved and direct a child’s play. There is no ‘one right way’ to build with legos or play with dolls. I think that often, as adults, we have a tough time letting go of the ideals in our heads and allowing the children to really, fully, take the lead and explore and play in whatever way they are inspired to. Really trusting that our child will learn whatever it is that they need to learn right now, by doing whatever it is that they are motivated to do, can be a big leap of faith in today’s society where we all seem to be so worried about our children being ‘left behind’. This kind of worry about tests scores and hot housing can motivate parents to influence their child’s play in ways that won’t always encourage and build imagination, creativity and innovation.
It’s also easy for adults to get caught up with the excitement of this cool activity or that fancy new gadget. But we often forget that it is an adult concept to care about how cool the painting looks at the end of the art activity or how many new words you can spell after playing with the computer game. Young children don’t, and shouldn’t, care so much about the outcomes, they care about the doing. It is in the doing that they are learning and having fun, not in the done. When it comes to activities like this, creativity and learning really does come from the adult stepping back and allowing the child to really enjoy the process.
I also don’t think that adults necessarily need to play with their children either. Yes, I am one of those mothers who rarely plays with her children. I am available to help whenever I am asked but I don’t really enjoy playing with dolls, or building train tracks, so to pretend I do seems inauthentic and stilted to me. I go about my work, and they go about theirs. Sometimes our paths overlap when one of us is interested in what the other is doing, but often they don’t. I don’t feel obliged to play with them because I don’t believe my adult influence is always wanted, nor always a good thing.
So yes, I am a passionate advocate for child lead, open ended play, but to suggest that play should never be influenced by an adult, well, I think that is kind of impossible.
Everything I do influences my children, and therefore their play, in many, many ways. The choices I make for my children, the toys and equipment I buy for them, the environment we live in, my availability to them, the way I interact, my ideals and values…. all these things influence the way my children play. Being aware of how I influence my child’s play (and learning) is important.
I influence my children’s play by the type of toys and materials I offer them, and I do so very deliberately. I choose to purchase toys and collect materials for my children that are open-ended (ie can be used in a variety of different ways), that are authentic (where possible we like to have toys that a small version of the real thing, rather than cheap plastic replicas, so our children have real china plates etc), that are made from a variety of natural materials (though we do have plenty of plastic toys too and don’t think all plastic is evil), that represent a variety of interests, subjects and life styles.
I influence my children’s play by offering them a safe, loving environment in which to explore. We are lucky, we live on a small property so there is lots of safe outside areas to play in and explore, but there are still some restrictions for safety that influence the way my children play. Indoors we try to set up an area where the children can play safely with little or no adult supervision. We store toys in a way that makes them easy for small people to access them (and pack them up… ha ha) and we don’t have many (any) dangerous or breakable things in the family areas (eg we don’t have a coffee table because all of our children like to leap off them). But there are some adult directed rules that strongly influence the way my children play. Things like the scissors being locked away to deter the middle sized boy from cutting his hair (again) or the tiny threading beads only coming out when the baby is asleep.
All of these things influence the way my children play, and for valid and important reasons, but I also influence their play more directly.
I will sometimes offer a certain set of toys and accessories, or set up a play area that encourages a certain type of play. For example; offering a selection of leaves and natural materials with a bowl of water and some plastic frogs for my frog mad three year old. This directly suggests a subject for his play and provides an initial set of equipment.
I do this for many reasons. I use it as a parenting tool to calm or redirect a child who is struggling. I do it to save my sanity, to engage a child so that I can complete a task or have a few moments peace. I do it because I know my children, I know what they are interested in and I enjoy encouraging them to follow that interest and enjoy a new idea.
I still offer these more directed activities as open ended, meaning that I ‘set the stage’ but I don’t direct the play. The activities are always available for as long or as little time as the child wants and I always base the idea of the activity around something I know my children is really interested in right now, but I at these times I am heavily and purposefully influencing their play, and I am ok with that.
Perhaps there is no ‘need’ to influence a child’s play in this way, but I like to do fun things with my children and this is just one of the fun things we do. This type of adult directed play fits well with my overall philosophy and is about sharing my ideas and knowledge with my children rather than telling them what they should be doing. Done with an understanding of the importance of play and how best to offer it I feel there is a lot to be gained from these type of activities and not much to be lost.
In a perfect world perhaps we should never interfere with our children’s play, perhaps they could create all the opportunities to play on their own without our influence, but my world is far from perfect and my children don’t always have easy and safe access to all the equipment and opportunities that they might if I carefully and lightly stepped in from time to time to share my knowledge expertise and skill. But perhaps I also need to take a step back and think twice when I have my next brilliant idea for a play set up. Is there really a valid reason for me to step in? Is there a better, less direct way that I could help facilitate play? Is this idea really of interest to my child or do I just think it is ‘cool’?
Thanks Cathy, you’ve really got me thinking about what I do and why I do it, which is always a good thing!