Friday, April 9, 2010

Follow a child's lead in play

This post is part of the 2010 API Principles of Parenting blog carnival, a series of monthly parenting blog carnivals, hosted by API Speaks. Learn more about attachment parenting by visiting the API website.

Why are there a spatula, tongs, strainer, two ice cream scoops, mushroom scrubber, address labels, several dish towels, and child's chair in the bathroom? Only the two-year-old knows, and he's not telling.

Yesterday Mikko was directing us as if we were, as Sam put it, an improvisational jazz troupe.

It's hard to tell you what was so intriguing about this exchange to Mikko, and when I describe it, you'll probably be thinking, What the hey? But here goes.

There's a show called Dora the Explorer (yes, you may have heard of it and/or love/hate it, whatevs), where a fox character named Swiper comes up and tries to steal something. When he's foiled (through a clever tactic of telling him to stop), he slinks away, muttering, "Ohh, maaan."

This was, sadly, the best video I could find of our inspiration.

I was hiding on the stairs so Mikko wouldn't bug me while I was trying to do something on the computer. (Yes, this is on a post about responding to our children with sensitivity. You got something to say?)

To amuse him, I would periodically call out, "Ohh, maaan." At first, Mikko was looking around, wondering where I was. He asked Sam, who was sitting beside him, "That Mama?" And Sam, trying to distract him (i.e., lie), said, "No, that's just a commercial."

Mikko thought this was hilarious. He started requesting that we say our lines in order. "Ohh, maan," I would call from my hidey-hole. Then Mikko would point to Sam, who was supposed to say, "That's a commercial." Then Mikko would say, "Ohh, maann," and then Sam was supposed to, say, once again, "That's a commercial."

It was convoluted to explain to you, so you can imagine how much time it took for us to figure out exactly what Mikko was hoping for in terms of our impromptu performance. He would coach us — "Say, 'Just a 'mercial,' 'k?" to Sam. If Sam forgot his line or came in late, Mikko would make us start over.

This whole affair was filled with giggles and went on far, far longer than Sam or I would have continue without two-year-old prodding.

This experience, among many others, has made me think about respecting our children as we play — following their lead and doing things that, to our adult minds, might seem pointless.

Here are some of my examples. One I mentioned awhile ago in my Rainy-day movement ideas for toddlers, where I described my toddler roller coaster:

I kneel on the bed, and he clambers around behind me and holds onto my shoulders. Then I fall face-first on the bed while he hangs on and rides down. He ends up landing mostly on my bum, which — trust me — is a soft landing.

There are so many of these games we made up by chance that Mikko grabbed onto and loves.

Sam accidentally made up "Sack Attack," where Mikko was climbing on a bed sheet and Sam scooped him up in it and then swung the sheet with (36-pound) Mikko in it around and around. Mikko was delighted. Sam later told me, "Don't make up any game you don't want to do a billion times in a row." So let that stand as your warning.

You know the rhyme "This is the way the lady rides"?

This isn't exactly the way we do it, but it was a cute baby, so I went with it.

My dad always used to add "And this is the way the elevator rides" and let us crash through his legs to the ground (I say "crash," but he broke our fall) or "This is the way the escalator rides" and he'd stretch out his legs and let us slide down. So, of course, I do this with Mikko. Only, it isn't enough to drop him through my legs for an elevator ride. He must push the button (on my palm) first. And then tell me what floor he's going to and whether he's going up or down. And usually? He's going up. All right, kid, I'll allow that. Up he goes!

The boys made up another game where Mikko stands at a particular spot distant from the bed and then runs and flops on it, rolling onto his back. Sam then runs after him and flops down beside him, and they give each other nose kisses. Why does Mikko find this entertaining enough to repeat again and again? I'm sure he has his motives. Whatever they are, it's a winner of a game — it gets him moving and helps him feel connected to his father.

I think that's the point of following our child's lead in our games. It shows that we respect what they value. It shows that we think they have an opinion worth listening to. It helps them feel honored and special and like they have a bit of control in this strange, wide world where everything and everyone is bigger than they are.

One book that got me to open up and engage more willingly in silly play was Playful Parenting, by Lawrence Cohen. Cohen talks about play as children's way of communicating and working through their emotions. It's the way they build relationship, so we as parents need to meet them there.

Sometimes I get so involved in an idea of how I the adult want to play that I miss my child's cues telling me how he wants to play. Are we lining up the toy cars in a row instead of driving them? All right, let's do that. I'll get bored and try to arrange them, then, by color, but maybe that's not his conception of the "right" way to do it. I have to let go of my own notions of what's valuable (in terms of "teaching" him something) and correct.

When I'm on the playground, I'm sometimes amazed by how parents try to control how their children amuse themselves, ferrying their kids from sandbox to swing set to slide as if to get full use out of every piece of equipment — and as if that matters at all to the child who should be left to her own devices at, if anywhere, a playground.

Once when my niece was about five years old, my brother who is somewhat of a manly-man jock, tried to get her interested in playing catch. "Come on, let's go outside!" he said, grabbing up a football.

"All right, Daddy," my niece replied. "But first, we should bring my dolls out to watch, don't you think?"

"No, no," my brother said. "Let's just go. Let's just play with the ball."

But my niece insisted. One by one, she brought out each of her numerous assortment of dolls and stuffed animals onto the lawn.

"I think they want to watch us, Daddy," she said. "Let's help them line up so they can see us."

"What about the ball?" my brother said, shoving the football into her arms.

My niece looked down at her new acquisition and began to cradle it, rocking it gently back and forth. "This baby needs a blanket, Daddy."

My brother gave up. She and her dad spent their playtime arranging dolls in the proper formation. The ball — and my brother's catch-playing dream — were forgotten.

It can be hard to let go of what we want from our children. But by engaging them on their level, in the way they want to play, we show we're willing to learn from them who they are, and that we respect them for being just that.

What are the goofy ways you play with your kids? Do you find it easy or hard to loosen up and be playful?


Momma Jorje said...

I think this is a wonderful reminder! I know I tended, with my middle child, to not want to play her games that bored me. :-\ So yeah, it can be hard to follow their lead. Our minds are not on the same level as theirs.

Unfortunately, no particular games we played come to mind. I know I pretended to eat a lot of pretend food she would cook in her little kitchen.

Unknown said...

My girl's grandparents, who are wonderful and loving, are the absolute worst at playing with her.

One has a predetermined idea of the 'right' way of playing with something, and the other takes over and plays eith the toy herself. Frustrating but funny nonetheless.

I'm totally into letting her play in her way. And I LOVE when she comes up with her own game.

I also have that caveat - never make up a game you don't want to play a million times. :)

Lindsay said...

Lol Baby never wants to play "right" so we end up doing all sorts of silly things, like using the center pole from a sorting tower as a drumstick (base still attached, lol).

Earlier this week he had a blast sitting in an empty diaper box (guilty: I use disposable diapers) and using one if the handle holes, torn a little to make it bigger, as a sort of "mail slot" for blocks and teething toys- I'd pass them in and he'd toss them out.

Thomasin said...

I love this post! And I know well the feeling of "Why did I start this game?" when I realize that one, two, three times isn't going to be enough for my daughter. "Itsy Bitsy Spider" is nice once or twice, but for 20 minutes? Yikes! Nevertheless, I sing and sign. And we play "Lady Rides" too! Boy, does she LOVE that one. I have to switch legs so I don't get a cramp. ;-)

I remember my parents sitting through many a painfully unrehearsed "play," bless them.

Dionna @Code Name: Mama said...

This might be one of my favorite posts of yours - loved it!!
(re: hiding to work on the computer - sometimes I get a few extra minutes in when Kieran wants to play "hide seek." He is an amazingly patient hider.)
Toddlers can get a kick out of the WEIRDEST things.
One of Kieran's latest things (that Tom and I need to work on NOT annoying us) is that he wants to climb from the back seat to the back (trunk-ish) portion of the car. Over. And. Over. Every time we are out. I usually ask him to wait until we get home, but he also usually forgets. I need to follow his lead - who cares if I "lose" 5 or 10 minutes in a random parking lot if it brings him so much joy?!

Anonymous said...

We have a variety of silly games that we play, and they're mostly child-directed. I don't have a hard time loosening up, but I do often tire of them before my kids. Still, we can usually reach a compromise.

My daughter's current favourite is "George doing funny things" featuring a plush Curious George. He dances on her head or hides in my shirt and I reprimand him. She finds it HILARIOUS.

Sarah @ Baby Bilingual said...

I love your family's addition of elevator and escalator to the "This Is the Way the Lady Rides" rhyme. It's so fun to take traditional rhymes and songs and change them up to make them more relevant and/or interesting! I'm going to add the elevator to my repertoire too now.

Anonymous said...

I sometimes will end a game "early" if I'm tired of it, but I figure I am a person also. I'll play a while and then ask if we can do something else. If he is really insistent then I keep playing but otherwise he'll usually do something else he thinks is fun.

At 15 months, he still loves put-it-in-take-it-out (which has the advantage of not requiring a lot of parent participation, unless he decides "it" should be something messy). Chase-the-cat (where we do impose rules about being nice, because otherwise the cat will impose them, with claws).

His Daddy inadvertently taught him a game that we still have to play out (although not as much as three months ago) at times - he sticks a link ring or other toy (small: we reject the bigger ones!) in your mouth, and you're supposed to look startled and then spit it out with a dramatic "ptui!" - all so he can grab it and do it again, of course. He's giggling madly by the end of a few rounds, and so is any adult nearby who doesn't have a mouthful of baby toy.

He loves sitting in the rocking chair and making it rock. (And again we impose our rules: he wants to stand and make it rock but we say no, you have to sit in the chair. As we don't really want the natural consequences from that.) I know at least one person who thinks we're insane for letting him in the rocking chair because it is too high for him to get up on his own or safely get down on his own. Um, that's why we stay with him and watch as he rocks happily. (I suppose I shouldn't tell her that today, he almost got up on his own. He DID get the first leg up, he just couldn't push or pull hard enough to get the rest of him after without help.)

And 'at! Hats are all the rage. Not wearing them, but putting them on and taking them off. He'll happily take them off you as well but he only tries to put him on himself. If it can be set on the head it's a hat. For some reason, when we put his rubber duckies up there and say "Duck-hat!" he will giggle madly - but only for those, not for any other to-an-adult-absurd object. (My favorite, which alas I didn't get a picture of, is him with an open clean cloth diaper over his head sideways. I giggled so much.)

Melodie said...

This is fantastic as usual my dear. I have to add that in playing these games you are building further trust in your relationship with your kids and therefore they are unlikely to misbehave. Finding time to connect with our kids throughout the day helps ensure happier kids *and* grown ups. Bravo!

Rambling Rachel said...

I have become excellent with a sword. It's amazing to watch my son's face light up after five minutes of sword play. (great swords and shields from Legoland)

What a good post. Playing with children is so boring for me, but important. If we can play now, I'm hopeful we'll also play in the years to come.

Lauren Wayne said...

Jorje & Rachel & others: Ah, yes, the boring factor! I have confessed to literally falling asleep during some of his games. Glad we're not alone. :)

Mon: Totally with you on the grandparents thing. My mom has "right" ways of reading books that bewilder me (and Mikko). My SIL, too. Some of the rules are basic, like you have to read all the words on every page, and they have to go in order — but that's hard and sometimes impossible with a toddler who wants to go faster or skip around. Some of their rules are more convoluted, like looking for certain hidden objects on each page, every time. I'm much more (or try to be) a follow-the-kid's-lead sort of person when reading books. It's supposed to be fun, right?

Maman A Droit: Boxes are the best! And boxes with handles are a dream.

Thomasin: Ask my parents about my umpteen Little Women plays... We videotaped some back in the day, and my dad's copying them over to DVD for me. If I find something worth posting, I'll be sure to share the hilarity!

Dionna: Hide & seek! I should have thought of that ruse. My uncle always used to use it on me when he needed a break. :) Sam is so patient with Mikko wanting to play in the trunk or the front seat. Me, not so much. But he really does love it — pushing the buttons for the radio and flipping on the "yipper yipers" (windshield wipers).

Amber: Totally stole your idea of reprimanding a doll, and Mikko got such a kick out of it.

becoming-mother: Great ideas! Love the "ptui" one. I think we've done variations on it. And I don't get people who think babies shouldn't be allowed to explore furniture?? Mikko also got a kick out of our glider at that age, with us standing watch.

Thank you, everyone! I've gotten more good ideas and just writing this and reading your comments has opened my eyes to lots of opportunities to play silly things with Mikko.

Tootlee said...

What you shared here is so important when helping children develop their total potential--giving a child respect to be themselves and direct even their play with adults. How empowering!

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