Several days ago I was driving home and passed by what looked to be a lemonade stand. Having a policy about stopping at all lemonade stands regardless of how big of a rush I am in, I turned the car around and parked. As I approached I saw the little girl begin to rearrange items on her table in anticipation of my arrival. She looked excited to have a visitor. As I fumbled in my pocket for some change, I realized that I was not looking at cups and a jug full of juice, but instead a table top full of carefully placed seashells, each with their own handmade label and category.
The little girl, who was around 7 or 8, eagerly began to explain to me where she had found each shell and why she had decided to pick it up. She also told me that she had spent quite a bit of time today (it was Saturday) looking up some of these shells in a book she had been given. Her innocence and enthusiasm were disarming, however I found myself expecting her at any minute to try and get me to purchase one of the shells. She didn't, and continued to talk animatedly about her favorite ones and why they were special. She then showed me a little box she kept under her table labeled "Shells that People Can Have". She told me I was welcome to pick any shells in this box and keep them for myself.
I couldn't quite believe that she had made no mention of buying anything on her table and was now offering me some of her special shells for free. I realized then, that she had undertaken this shell-display project for the pure enjoyment of labeling and displaying her shells. Her motivation did not come from some external reward of money or parental praise, it came from within. I could tell it was important for me to pick several shells to take with me; I did, thanked her, and walked back to my car feeling impressed with this creative, resourceful, and confident little girl.
Wouldn't we all like to have a child like that? One who is self motivated, who on a Saturday spends her day researching a topic of interest and presents it in such a creative way.
Parents today are put under enormous pressure to be everything to their children. We are told to be their teacher, mentor, caregiver, and above all their playmate. Parenting books, television shows and magazines are full of different play and craft ideas we can do with our kids. We are encouraged to keep them "stimulated" to facilitate brain development. We feel bad if our children seem bored. We enroll them in early music classes, gymnastics, ballet, and swimming. We try and keep them busy and occupied and often this means the job of a stay at home parent is literally never done.
Several years ago, when I taught preschool, I began to notice an interesting phenomena in the three year olds who would arrive at my school in September. They didn't know how to play. They were definitely interested in the centers, the play-dough, the activities, and the other children, but they kept looking to me to provide them with direction and motivation. As long as I was actively involved and putting a lot of energy into entertaining them, the children did fine. As soon as I tried to let them take more of a lead and play independently, they were lost.
This was surprising to me, as I assumed that all children instinctively know how to play. I began to speculate that perhaps the excessive time parents were spending playing with their children was causing problems of dependency rather than helping them learn. I also came to learn that this dependency was also having a negative effect on these parents. I frequently have parents in my office bemoaning the fact that they never have a moment to themselves.
Are you constantly busy with your children, providing activities, driving them places, trying to stave off whining, boredom and temper tantrums? If so, you may be exhausted! When children are overly entertained and have not acquired the ability to play alone, they tend to become increasingly demanding and always look to the parent or caregiver to solve their boredom. Teaching children from an early age to play independently is to give them a life-long skill. To be able to entertain oneself with one’s own thoughts and ideas leads a child toward a rich inner life. A child who cannot play by herself must keep constantly vigilant in an effort to cajole or whine her way toward finding a playmate, usually a parent. Naturally, parents are most interesting to play with because they often lead the play and the child is then content to sit back and be passively entertained.
Parents who want to encourage independent play for their child can begin at around 5-7 months old to leave their baby for short periods of time (15-25 minutes) with a small basket of play props such as measuring spoons, small toys and suck-able objects. Happy or not, the child has the opportunity to relate to his toys without an adult present. The parent may come back and forth, adding an item or idea here or there, or sitting a moment for a tea party or giving a kiss to a bear, but these times are brief and the child learns over time that the best new ideas exist inside his own head.
Sets of zoo animals, farm animals, play people, hats, containers, a little music and tiny bowl of dry Cheerios, makes the playtimes feel special. For easy tidying, store each category of play props in individual baskets.
With this approach, parents become the facilitators of the child’s play, providing the props, the opportunity, and the privacy without slipping into the role of entertainer. Regrouping the toys from time to time and interspersing independent playtimes with story times, naps and mealtimes, means that by the end of the day you may even have enough energy left to entertain yourself – and admire your good parenting!
As always, feel free to take advantage of Kitty’s expertise by booking your first conversation today and taking your first step to peaceful parenting and quieter nights.