Let Them Play (and Get Out of the Way)!
When you’re a busy parent or caregiver with errands to run, mouths to feed, and work to do, allowing for time for play might seem pretty low on the priority list. In fact, these days play often has to be scheduled to ensure it happens. As someone who spends a good amount of my work day attempting to be fully present with others, it’s amazing to me how easy it is to get caught up in the daily whirlwind in my personal life. When I’m in a particularly aware space, I can catch myself turning every activity into a goal-directed one. Even play time with my kids can evolve into a very time-limited and rushed flurry of lego-building and board games. In those moments, I tend to do a lot of directing. It allows me to get onto my next to-do item, but these generally aren’t my shiniest parenting moments.
There’s a time and place for that sort of play. Structured and goal-directed play isn’t inherently bad. For example, competitive games, like Uno are loads of fun. Crafting with a specific “product” or goal in mind is also satisfying for many. But the play that this generation of kids is especially losing out on is the unstructured kind. The kind of play where a child gets to be spontaneous and creative, exploratory and in charge. The kind that occurs just for the sake of having fun with no planned product in mind except that of their own imagination. And trust me when I say that losing unstructured child-directed play is a big problem. Our over-scheduled kids are on the front lines of a nationwide anxiety epidemic, while child-directed play has so many critical benefits (motor skills/coordination, self concept, and social skills, to name just a few).
Assume you’re being invited in and that you’re making an effort to create space for non-competitive, non-directive play, here’s a few tips to get you started:
Three Tips for Getting Out of the Way of a Kid’s Play
- Pretend You’re a (Play) House Guest. When you’re a new guest in someone else’s house, you don’t just bulldoze your way through a visit. Instead, you would typically use your best manners, observe whether others take off their shoes at the door, politely ask for a drink of water if it’s not offered, etc. Think of yourself as a guest in your child’s play. Don’t just help yourself to what’s in the fridge. Ask how they want you to play if they don’t tell you first. Better yet, observe them in their play for a bit before getting involved.
- Allow for Repetitive Play. Look… if you’re going to be a good playmate, you simply have to stop putting a kibosh on kiddo playing out the same thing over and over. Do you remember when your four-year-old requested that you read the story of “The Little Red Hen” again? For the six bazillionth time in a week? That’s developmentally appropriate for young children. Personally, I conceptualize that sort of repetitive play as an attempt at mastery– a signal to me that I ought to stay out of the way until they’ve resolved the issue. It’s tempting to insist on something different because YOU are getting bored of it. Ultimately though, if you let your child engage in that repetitive play enough, she’s likely to move on eventually.
- Get Over your Savior Complex. Many in our culture have misinterpreted boredom as signaling something negative is happening— that our child needs more activities, more things to accomplish. But let me clear up that confusion. Being bored is OK. Some even tout it as a gift. From boredom comes the best kind of creativity and spontaneity. Please stop rescuing your child each time he or she complains of boredom. Instead, say “Huh. I wonder what you’ll do about that?” Expect a bit of resistance if your child isn’t used to that sort of response. I can almost guarantee though that if you suggest a chore as an activity, they’ll find their own boredom solution.
Sometimes having a designated time and space for play can be the best answer to getting into a play rhythm. While there’s lots of options, some of our favorites are right here in house:
At Intuition Wellness Center we specialize in integrated behavioral health services and wellness programs for children, young adults and families and supporting other like-minded professionals in doing good work. We offer parent education seminars, wellness classes and other supportive services. If you think you would like some extra support, call us. Call 520-333-3320 for a free phone consultation.
Written By: Brandy Baker, PsyD; Co-Founder; Clinical Psychologist