What a powerful week of play I have had! I have been privileged to be involved in Pop-Up Adventure Play’s World Tour visit to Singapore. I learnt so much more about play, our kids and us grown-ups.
Over four days, we celebrated child-directed play by giving children the time and space to play. No directions, no corrections. Just each other, a whole lot of open-ended materials (like boxes, fabric, tape, tyres) and permission to do whatever they wanted.
As you would expect, the kids responded in the best way they knew how. Some went straight to work, grabbing materials and a buddy and acting as if they had been planning for this day their whole life. Others hung around the edges for a while, scouring the area with their eyes to see what everyone else was doing and sizing up the materials with a critical eye. Within a few minutes, everyone was playing with every ounce of their being. Uncertainty made way for purpose and delight.
Whether they were two years old or twelve or thirty, everyone was playing. Some play was active, racing a car tyre down a slope and pulling friends along in said tyre with a chain attached. Some play was quieter, with empty coffee capsules being sorted into egg cartons.
Some play was flexible, with a piece of fabric changing from a theatre curtain, to a tunnel, to a wall. Some play was repetitive, with one child choosing to sit inside a cardboard box to see how long she could hide inside before someone noticed her, over and over again.
Some play was social, with gangs of kids swarming to a common cause like creating a balance beam and queuing up to test it. Some play was solo, like moving water from one bucket to another.
But no matter how they played, everyone played by following their own instincts, and for their own reasons. Whether it was challenging themselves, making new social connections, hiding themselves away, or testing out an idea, they all had an innate desire to do whatever it was they were doing. What a treat it was to be able to give them the time to follow their instincts!
The thing that wasn’t so varied?
The reactions of the supervising adults.
“Are you going to let them do that?”
“Isn’t that a bit dangerous?”
“How about you play with this?”
“Let’s make a _______!”
It was HARD to just step back and watch the children play, without intervening. Without giving instructions. Without giving reminders to ‘be careful with the end of that tube!’ Without redirecting the rowdy play towards something more subdued. Without advising what could be done with the materials.
It was HARD not to get engaged in ways that we normally would. To step out of that role of the all-knowing adult and accept that in this situation, the kids were the experts. To see the kids as capable of challenging themselves and extending the possibilities of the materials, in the myriad of ways that they saw fit, rather than through the eyes of an adult watching on.
It was HARD to trust them to know that a cardboard tube, when applied with force to a little friend’s arm, will hurt. To trust that they would have a plan for catching the car tyre when it careened into a crowd. To see them as capable of figuring out that a fall from a swing 30 centimetres off the ground would hurt less than a fall from a metre.
Some of the supervising adults could override this feeling and leave them to it. I only managed this by wrapping a piece of ribbon around and around my wrist, focusing on weaving it through my fingers whenever I saw something that made me squirm. The sage experts from Pop-Up Adventure Play suggested to “Watch their faces. If their faces look happy, they are fine. If they look scared or angry, sure, step in.”
Some of the supervising adults were overwhelmed, and couldn’t resist getting involved. Whether it was picking up something that had been dropped, directing a child’s attention to some new material, or stepping in to stop something; sometimes, it was just too hard.
Yet, for all the moments us adults wanted to intervene, nobody got hurt. None of the accidents we all conjured up in our minds happened in real life. No child was injured by playing the way they wanted to. No one walked away angry that they didn’t get what they wanted. No one appeared to have their feelings irreparably hurt.
Which got me to thinking – what does my son think when I intervene in his play? When I step in to remind him to share, when I direct his attention to something, when I dissuade him from picking up that extra-large-eye-gouging stick? Does he think that I don’t see him as capable of figuring that out for himself?
It is his childhood after all, not mine. It is his play, not mine. If I truly see him as capable, if I have trust in him, why do I feel the need to step in when I see something I don’t like? I am pretty proud of our four short years of parenting. I feel like we do a great job of teaching him our values and how we live our lives with love, curiosity and respect. So why should I feel the urge to give him my advice, even when he is playing?
Seeing this same impulse in other adults made me realise how our positive intentions of wanting to keep our children safe and happy, can very quickly translate into a negative experience for our children. Ever had someone give you unsolicited advice? Feel great about it? Nope, me neither. (The fabulous Peter Gray has some thoughts about how to give advice to your kids without driving them crazy.)
Especially when that unsolicited advice cramps your style so much that you change your perception of yourself and your abilities. Some of the children who attended our Pop-Up Playgrounds last week looked to adults for approval during their play. A Lot. One little guy in particular stood out. He had asked me for help to put some water in a bucket, moving from tap to play area very, very slowly, gradually getting more control over his grip on the bucket full of sloshing water. On the third trip, I invited him to go alone to the tap. He took one step away, then looked back. “Off you go!” I motioned to him. He took two steps this time, then stopped again and quizzically looked back at me. I encouraged him off again, and this time he gleefully raced by himself to the tap.
His teacher raced after him.
I raced after his teacher.
“He can do it!” I told her, as she watched him from behind a wall.
“This is huge for him,” she said. “He has never had the confidence to finish anything on his own. He often starts things, but then gives up easily. This is the first time he has done anything on his own!”
This little guy may never have had the opportunity to finish something on his own, without an adult seeing him as capable, and giving him the time and space he needed to show us.
There were so many more stories of children showing us they are capable. The teenage boys who started a game of high jump over a rope, right near the road. Without prompting, two boys moved into position to be able to catch anyone who may have jumped too close to the traffic.
Or the little guy who struggled with long cardboard tubes, aiming to get them both into a box. If an adult had stepped in to help him, we may never have had the pleasure of seeing his look of self-satisfaction after his awkward tube-dance when they finally went where he wanted them.
Or the group who made a balance beam using a plank of wood across two car tyres. First, by having a friend hold up the planks, then realising that this was maybe defeating the purpose, so together, five kids made the decision to just use one plank. And even formed an orderly queue to test it out!
Or the two little girls who at first made lame attempts to pick up a heavy car tyre, before they realised they could work together to share the weight and eventually get it upright. If the adult hovering beside them had lifted it up for them, those girls might not have enjoyed their game of rolling the tyre back and forth so, so much.
My week was a beautiful lesson in capability. To trust that our children are capable of finding their own ways of doing things. To trust that our children are capable of playing without our intervention. To trust that they are capable of experimentation without our suggestions to try this or try that. To trust that they are capable of being loving human beings who will take care of each other. To trust that they are capable of dealing with it if they do get hurt.
And my own capability? I learnt that I am capable of quitting being that white noise in the background when my son plays. That I am capable of honouring him as a child, capable of putting my own perspectives aside and capable of seeing him for who he is. Because he is not me, and he doesn’t need me constantly telling him how I would do things.
We are all capable of this. Now we just have to do it ….