When I think of my most prominent play memories, the ones I see as peak moments of my own childhood, I think of the Fairy Glen. Not more than an overgrown section of the bush, no less than a magical land full of mountains, rivers and kingdoms. My sisters and I would play here, in this section of our front yard that was untouched, natural Australian bush. No expert could have designed it better. Big rocks for climbing, scrub for hiding in, fallen trees to play amongst, an inlet of run-off water from the road that we called a ‘creek’. We spent many hours here. More than our mother could have ever counted.
But my mum never entered it.
My mother. My very own mother. She doesn’t feature in the strongest play memories of my childhood.
And I think her absence makes her awesome.
My mother was a great facilitator of our play – she suggested she saw fairies on our shoulders one day during a long, boring car trip, and those imaginative friends didn’t leave our sides for months. But more than giving us simply ideas, she gave us time and the space for our own free play. Free of adult constructs and adult schedules. Free of adult supervision.
Show faith in your child
I believe it is so important for adults to get out of the way of children’s play. I also think this is one of the hardest things to do in our modern world. I want to show him what I see, direct his attention to that thing which I think he needs to know about, in my effort to be the best parent I can. But I also need to have faith that he will be the best human he can be, all on his own. I have faith in my son’s ability to judge risks, challenge himself and solve problems. I have faith that he will learn how to negotiate with others to get what he wants, and will learn, through play, how to give others what they want, too. I want to honour his choices, and to let him direct his own play.
Barriers to getting out of the way
But I find it hard to do this. Within our modern lifestyle, there are so many structures that make it harder for me to get out of the way of my son’s play. A busy neighbourhood street, playmates committed to their own activity schedules, play locations a drive away, and the idea of close supervision as parenting perfection. This last one I struggle with the most – the idea that if I am a good parent, I will know exactly what my son is doing and will be involved in his play with all of my attention and intent.
Each weekend, we spend time at our local park. Watten Heights Playground is the best. Grassed areas, a hill to climb up and down, the perfect ‘race track’ footpath, sand, seasonal seed pods that cover the paths. A lot of our time there is spent in conflict, between being a ‘good parent’ who shows interest in their kid’s games and cares about their child’s safety, and one who seems disinterested. I find myself becoming a ‘helicopter parent’ in the presence of other helicopter parents. Parents who insist on following their children around the playground, negotiating with other children on their child’s behalf, presenting game ideas and toys, being a playmate who kicks and chases balls, directing climbing attempts, scooters in pretend races, in place of the potential ‘kid’ playmates all wandering around the park followed by their own parents or caregivers.
Not wanting to be judged a bad parent, I join in the helicoptering. After all, I would rather it be me who reminds my son to play nice, rather than the parent whose child just had sand dropped on their head. Actually, scrap that – I would rather leave it to the kids themselves to sort out. Better a fellow four year old tell my son off than a 40 year old.
Will you play with me?
Adults are very predictable playmates. We respond in non-surprising ways, have patterns and limits in our interactions and how we play games. As playmates, kids can also be predictable for each other, but there are fewer ways to regulate how your playmate will react. But I believe it is truly through playing with other kids that our children learn to negotiate, follow rules, express themselves effectively and decode the emotional cues of others. Yes, there are some times when playing with our kids is a great thing (see what American psychologist, Peter Gray, researcher professor at Boston College and a huge influence for me, has to say about this here). But I believe we already do plenty of this. What our kids really need is for us to get out of the way and let them get on with the business of their own self-directed play.
Here are some of the ways we try to do this in our family:
- Go to the public park and just sit. Let your child to the walking around on their own. Encourage them to approach other kids to see if they want to play, but do this in the car/on the way there. Talk later about what happened.
- Set rules or boundaries before you go out to play. I worry less about chasing my son as he rides his scooter out of the park if we have already clearly talked about where is safe to scoot as soon as we arrive.
- Have open-ended toys at home. Ones where there is no ‘right’ way to play, and everyone can do their own thing. Lego is great for this at any age…..just ask my husband.
- Let. Them. Do. It. By. Themselves. Children will only climb as high as they feel safe, go as fast as they feel they can manage. If you get involved, and place them on that unreachable branch, who are you doing that for?
- Play games that you also want to play. Being the bad guy who burns down buildings for the thousandth time is not fun for anyone.
- Focus on self-directed play being at the core of your child’s play time, rather than something that happens in between after-school activities or while you’re getting ready for the next event on your schedule.
So, go get out of the way! Get out of the way of your child’s play.