Thursday, July 17, 2008

Why are adults in charge of playing?

I've discovered a new tool in our work-at-home arsenal: the playground.

It's going to seem obvious when I say that Mikko enjoys the playground, but truly, he didn't until this month. Before that, he found the slide befuddling and the creaking noise of the swing chains eerie. And getting on the swings? Fuhgedaboutit.

But the beach this past weekend was ├╝ber-crowded, so I headed inland and stumbled upon the nearest playground. It was a playground we had scoped out when we decided to move to this neighborhood when I was pregnant, but we hadn't needed to use it before now. I saw that it had a sizable sand area littered with communal sand toys, so I stored that information away in my head and toddled back home, past the sunbaking masses. Mikko was in the Ergo on my back, and I didn't feel like letting him down and getting him back up under the gaze of so many curious eyes -- getting him on my back by myself always ends up seeming like I'm berating him: "Give me your hand. Give me your hand. Mikko, give me your hand!" One of us usually ends up crying, too.

The next day was hot. Our apartment, sans outdoor breezes, was even hotter. Sam was away, and I was desperate. I tried to blow up our kiddie pool to put out on the porch, but Mikko freaked when I flipped the switch for the electric pump. No way was I filling that thing with lungs alone.

So I pulled out our umbrella stroller, stashed my laptop in a backpack I looped on the back, added a couple granola bars and a drink, and headed off to the park.

Mikko loved it. I plopped him down in the sandpit, and he promptly scooted away from me, just like the mobile babies in The Continuum Concept. He picked up a rake and then mostly just held it and people-watched. And, boy, were there a lot of people to watch. He was fascinated by the 2-year-old girl and the 8-year-old boy, the 11-month-old baby and the mother and father helping their 2-year-old pour sand into a tractor. Mikko didn't made eye contact with me only rarely, but he must have felt confident in knowing I was nearby to continue scooting around and, well, staring -- one of his favorite pastimes when we're out and about.

I pulled out my laptop, hacked into an open wireless network, and got to work goofing off online, what I do best. That said, when I told Sam what we had done that day, we both realized that we could use the time to work while Mikko amuses himself, which is a great strategy for a mom-and-pop business.

Every once in awhile, I'd glance around and find I was the target of inquisitive looks. I investigated the scene more thoroughly and realized that I was (a) the only parent who had brought something to do and (b) the only parent not interacting with her child. I found this strange.

For (a), why wouldn't people want to take the opportunity to read a book or talk with other parents or chat on a cell phone rather than be caught up in what their children were doing, something they would have to do when they were somewhere less interesting to their children? Why not take advantage of the distraction that the playground offered?

Granted that it was a Sunday, and many of these parents were probably off work and enjoying some interactive time with their kids. Ok, but on to (b).

For (b), I enjoyed seeing some parents, fathers in particular, roughhousing and playing imaginative games with their kids, utilizing the equipment. Some just ran around on the grass playing tag, which seemed like fun as well. But 80 percent or so of the parents just nagged and directed.

"Don't eat that. No, icky." (I was the only one letting her child sample the sand and mulch, and Mikko had the dirt goatee to prove it.)

"You want to go to the slide now? Come on, let's go to the slide. Put down the shovel. Come on, let's go to the slide." (This said as the child is crying and reaching back toward the sandbox.)

"Don't you want to share your bucket? Let Braden have a turn with the bucket. What good sharing!" This emphasis on sharing became especially problematic because Mikko has entered a phase of unrehearsed, undirected sharing. He offers items to anyone nearby, whether it's a half-chewed piece of apple with all the juice sucked out, or a booger from his nose, or, in this case, a sandbox toy. He scooted up to a little girl and offered his rake to her. She clutched her shovel in response and shied away, rightly fearing that if she accepted his rake, she would have to give up her pink shovel, per her parents' instructions. They tried in vain to get her to "share," while I debated how or whether to intervene. I wanted to reassure the girl that Mikko didn't at all expect her shovel in return, and in fact would probably take back the rake within 4 seconds (he's not a permanent giver), but then I felt I was interrupting the parents' "lesson." In the end, I just picked him up and brought him back toward me so the girl could continue her play.

I just kept wondering at why all these parents had an agenda in mind for the playground. What difference did it make to them whether their children spent their whole time in the sandbox or on the slide? Wouldn't they learn to interact socially without constant advice and praise? Mikko gave a fine example of just that, with his natural inclination toward gifting. Would a little sand tasting hurt so very much? How will they build up a healthy immune system otherwise? Ha ha.

Here's what Peggy O'Mara writes in one of her "A Quiet Place" essays:

"Self-direction is one of the great values of play. We all enjoy it. Children love to--need to--play. This is how they create themselves. They practice different realities in play and from them form a personality. It is easy for parents to forget the importance of simple, unstructured play because of the pressures we all feel to make sure that our children have all of the appropriate advantages. The greatest advantage to childhood, however, may simply be free time.

"When my children were young, there was a growing number of programs for children. Now there are endless choices of dance, music, art, sports, drama, martial arts, gymnastics, yoga, etc. for children of all ages. Many parents feel pressured for our children to compete with other children for excellence and achievement in these and other pursuits. We often feel in competition with their parents. We also feel pressure to begin our children in formal educational programs at younger and younger ages, and for longer and longer periods.

"While it is important that children and families interact with their peers and take advantage of appropriate learning opportunities, it is also essential for us not to expect of our children too much abstract learning in their first three to five years. This is when they are learning from the home environment, digging in the dirt of themselves. This is their matrix, their focal point of learning, during these early years."

To "dig in the dirt of themselves" might require basic digging in the dirt.

I was feeling nostalgic and a little sad as I walked Mikko's stroller back to our place and remembered my own childhood of freedom. We had a playground right outside our door, and my friends and I spent hours flipping over monkey bars and spinning ourselves dizzy on the merry-go-rounds. (Those, along with tall metal slides that have actual slipperiness to them, seem to have gone the way of the woolly mammoth.) We would dig up edible plants or shovel in the sand right down to the clay. We would pick up worms and observe roly-poly bugs. We would create forts underneath willow trees and pretend our bikes were horses. When I was in junior high, we could ride all over the city I lived in then.

I don't see junior-high children out riding their bikes alone in this city. I don't see elementary-school children at the playground by themselves. I question whether I would be comfortable allowing that for my own children. I suppose it's an issue of safety, and maybe that's for the best, but I long for those good old days that I remember enjoying.

Because the unintended consequence of always needing to observe your child playing is that parents don't seem able to stop themselves from doing more than observing. We should sit back and let our children get on with the business of play, inserting ourselves only when invited.

Here's an article by Greg Richmond titled "Bring Back Play." As with Peggy O'Mara, he points out that one of the pressures sabotaging child-directed play is the parents' drive to make their children successful. In the sandbox, that translates to drilling the concept of sharing toys and behaving appropriately around the other kids. What mother wants her kid to be the only one eating the sand? (Well, me.) But the benefits of free play that Richmond points out are so great that we really need to step back and let our children make choices, make mistakes, and maybe even hurt themselves as they explore their world.

Benefits of play include building social skills by uninterrupted interactions with other children, burning off physical energy and developing fitness, learning creativity and problem solving, and what Richmond calls self-regulation, or the ability to control behavior, which is a component of self-talk, present in imaginative, free-form play. Getting outside for the play also provides the benefits of sunlight-induced vitamin D and a break from the television and computer screens. (Well, for Mikko, at any rate -- I'm bringing mine with me!)

Here's another article from PBS' The Whole Child about the benefits of self-directed play: Creativity and Play: Fostering Creativity.

"Play is the serious business of young children and the opportunity to play freely is vital to their healthy development. ... As caregivers, we must be careful to avoid dominating the play ourselves. Play should be the result of the children's ideas and not directed by the adult. ... Our goal is to stimulate play -- not control it -- and to encourage children's satisfaction in playing with each other."

Despite feeling like the only one at the playground practicing benign neglect, I'm going back there, and I'm going to sit back and let Mikko get to work at playing.


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