Brittany Graham from Utah’s FOX 13’s The Place recently asked for my opinion on a blog post titled, “Get Out of the Play!”. I loved it and ended up writing my thoughts in this post about how our family allows child-directed play in our home.
Stop by my house at anytime and you’ll not find the spotless, well-kept, Pottery Barn decorated images filled with littles dressed in clean, adorable outfits with perfectly done hair… These were the images of my dreams before my husband and I started into the magical journey of parenthood.
Instead, you may find a yarn ball explosion with children creating pulleys across railings, hallways and doorknobs or a make-believe laser beam obstacle course as they challenge each other to make it across the hallway without setting off the “deathly laser beams”. Maybe you’ll find a collection of bugs with leaves and dirt in containers sitting by the collection pile of very special sticks gathered over the months from our hikes on the trails and walks to the park. You might look in the back yard to see a princess in a sparkly gown and tiara digging for worms in the mud. Walk upstairs and it could be some “witch’s brew” of magical ingredients being stirred in the “witch’s cauldron” or more realistically described as hundreds of tiny scraps of different-colored construction paper being thrown across the floor. You might find the goofiness of inserting a balloon head on top of a brother’s head in his hoodie! If you peek in my freezer, don’t be alarmed by the dead baby snake in a plastic bag that my son was sure he needed to save for further exploration!
These scenes of mess and chaos may give you anxiety. They have almost given me a few panic attacks, but usually, after several deep breaths and reminders for more deep breaths, I’ve stopped myself enough to share the magic and splendor of childhood play through their perspective. As my children are growing, I now swoon over the long days of tired and exhausting bliss and wish they weren’t passing so quickly.
In my training as an occupational therapist student at Colorado State University, I was fortunate to have studied with Anita Bundy, ScD, OT, FAOTA, an internationally recognized expert on children’s play. In addition to my general pediatric OT studies, I also spent a semester with her studying play. I’ve been fascinated with children’s play ever since.
As a practicing pediatric occupational therapist for over 15 years, I’ve spent my career therapeutically using, studying and intervening to support children’s play to improve their everyday lives. Twelve years ago, I started my journey into motherhood, where play was an everyday event in my own home. My OT studies and career have made me a better mom and has had a definite and strong influential impact on my parenting style and philosophies.
What is true play? According to Anita Bundy, basing her theories on the work of previous play experts, play is characterized by three important aspects:
- Play is intrinsically motivated. Play is done for the pure enjoyment, excitement and interest for the process itself, not for any end result, product or destination.
- Play may extend the limits of reality. Play can always include purple unicorns in a magical kingdom, jet packs that shoot you to Mars, pixie dust to make you fly through the sky, magical staffs to cast spells, spoons becoming phones, empty paper towel rolls transforming into telescopes, pool noodles making excellent swords… True play is never limited by reality.
- Play allows the player to maintain control. If another takes control of the direction of the play without consent or the rules of the environment are overly restrictive, true play is lost.
As adults, we feel a heavy responsibility to guide and raise our children to be happy, healthy and successful individuals. We see the end result and feel responsible to be sure they arrive at that destination. We tend to imagine the direct path they will travel to their final finish line of happy, healthy successful adult.
I’ve seen parents at the park telling children to keep their shoes on, not play in the dirt, don’t climb so you don’t fall, don’t throw grass, don’t get wet… with a constant barrage of direction and intervention to make sure the child doesn’t get hurt, doesn’t break adult rules of politeness, doesn’t get dirty, doesn’t make a mess, doesn’t mess up their hair, doesn’t make anyone wait too long… I do believe these parents’ intentions are good. But this constant adult direction doesn’t allow a child to fall into the process of true play defined by intrinsic motivation, suspension of reality and a sense of control.
Play is the work of children and if you observe children deep in play, they are intent, focused and in an absolute sense of enjoyment. Children learn insurmountable amounts of essential physical, emotional, cognitive and social skills necessary to become happy, healthy and successful individuals through years and years of true play. They take risks to stretch their abilities. Yes, risks that will often cause adults to feel uncomfortable. When we get in the way of their play process, we impede their development of these essential skills and opportunity to build confidence in their own abilities.
So, how can adults allow and protect child-directed play?
- Create and protect time for child-directed play. Allow downtime each day without scheduled activities or screen-time where they are passively entertained. For me, I have to be patient and slow myself down and remind myself that during this time, we are on the child’s time table. I’m constantly monitoring my rushed thoughts so we can spend our time together enjoying the journey, not focusing on the destination. So, when my son spends so much time collecting and intensely inspecting hundreds of rocks on our hike that we never make it to the final waterfall destination with everyone else, that’s ok. We shared in the splendor of collecting and over-filling our pockets with all the special rocks we could find.
- Create and allow physical space for child-directed activities. Where can your children build an obstacle course, paint pictures, dress up, make-up their own dance, perform in a marching band, explore bugs, jump, run, wrestle…? For over 10 years, we had a huge bean bag instead of a couch downstairs to allow jumping, crashing and wrestling. That was the main attraction of our house for friends coming to our house to play for many years. Our children have spent endless hours climbing up a table, jumping, flipping and crashing into the bean bag over and over.
- Allow messes in the space you’ve created. Let them play with their food, play in the mud, jump in the puddles, play with play dough, paint… My children wear old play clothes to the park. Hair gets messy and dirty feet are common. Set some boundaries for the mess, but allow the mess to happen. My daughter had so much creativity oozing onto walls, scratching into car doors… So, we painted chalkboard walls in the playroom, bought an easel for painting and allowed her to draw anything she wanted on both sides of her bedroom door since the door had a hole and eventually needed to be replaced. We still have the door after many years and we’re keeping it for more creativity. Don’t stress during the process and leave clean-up until the end. Messes give many great opportunities to teach cleaning up.
- Allow risk-taking behavior within physically and emotionally safe environments. Will your child get bumps, bruises, feelings hurt? Yes, again and again and again. We all learn best from mistakes rather than being protected from ever making one. Let children do this also. Keep children safe from life-altering injuries, but falls, bumps, bruises, cuts, even broken bones will heal. Kids learn their own vigilance to keep themselves and others safe in their risk-taking behavior. Allow time for children to try to negotiate and solve social disagreements on their own. They will began to recognize how others react to their own behaviors and how to work together. Be available to help, but not too close to interfere (reading a book, folding laundry, talking to friend). If needed, use problem-solving questions such as, “What might happen if you jump from the top of the slide?” Or, “How can you all solve this problem together so you all can have fun?” Stay away from adding more and more defined restrictions like, “No running. No climbing….” My sons love to climb. I remember the day my oldest son decided to climb a huge tree and shimmy his way to the edge of a very high branch at our local park. While I was watching closely from a short distance, several other moms rushed to the tree and suggested he should get down so he didn’t fall. I knew he was taking some risks, but I knew my son and his abilities and allowed him to stretch that day. If he fell, I was watching and could immediately run to help him. He didn’t fall and fully enjoyed the journey to the edge of the high branch and back.
- Leave your own plan behind, take your children’s direction and follow them into the magic of childhood. Let your children amaze and delight you! Enjoy it as much as they do! One Christmas was extremely busy for us as we were remodeling another house and planning a move. I only had time to set up the Christmas tree, not decorate it. One day as I was working on a project downstairs, my children, ages 2-6, took responsibility to decorate the tree themselves. My 4-year-old daughter organized her brothers and they searched out tree decorations together… stuffed animals, hair accessories, loose parts of school art projects, socks, ribbons, bracelets, watches, baby blankets, old wrapping paper, an old plastic hose to a small ball pump, superhero figures… Never would I have allowed this to happen with my idea of an ideally decorated Christmas tree… until they pulled me by my hand up the stairs to excitedly present their decorated Christmas tree with such pride in their work! This will always be one of my favorite Christmas memories!
It’s all about balance. There’s a time for adult directions, structure and reality. There’s also a time for the child to have control, give direction and lead. In my professional and personal experience, the cost of mess and chaos is worth the benefits of the journey through the magic and splendor of child-directed play!