I had a friend ask me the other day, " How do you get anything done? You're always doing something with the girls! I don't know how you do it". I had to confess to her I don't play with the girls all the time. Because I am ever striving for the elusive work/family balance (I've decided it is more like a pendulum) I do try to plan a few special activities a week to try with the girls. But I need my quiet time to drink a chai, check my email, read facebook/blogs, or maybe even tackle a domestic task (maybe...please don't imagine my house as spotless, it is not). My girls spend large amounts of their day in free, unguided play. Especially on the weekends. Aren't weekends for everyone, even parents?
This is a typical Saturday morning in our house. For two glorious hours the girls worked away arranging and rearranging chairs and blankets to create an animal play house for themselves and their stuffies. The girls aren't big into baby dolls or Barbies preferring to imagine a world where animals can take on the same roles. They dressed up their stuffies, pushed them around in their toy stroller, tucked them in for naps and hide from the "ghosts" in the club house.
Bria: I'm Mommy to Alista the Rainbow Kitty and Robsabell my princess puppy.
Malia: Me mommy Pink Bunny.
Bria: I'm going to fed my babies!
Malia: Me too!...Boobies?
Bria: No Mimi we can't feed them from our boobies.
Bria: Yes we have nipples but let's feed them rainbow chocolate. They love that!
Bria: Watch out for the ghost, don't let him get the babies!
I love listening to the fun (and funny) ideas they come up with! Sometimes it takes everything in me not to chock on my chai at the conversations I witness. It can also be equally hard not to throw in my own ideas or try to intervene if I sense a squabble coming on, but I do my best to bite my tongue. Why? Well, I firmly believe that free play is the crux of creativity and socialization in the early years.
When we have no guidance our imaginations shift into gear. At an age where reality and fantasy are blurred it is a gift to allow our children the time to fully explore and create without the boundaries of "rules". If we limit the idea of play at a young age we will ultimately limit our children's ability to look at the world from different perspectives. When we try to anchor imaginative play in the realities of the real world, we limit the possibilities of what they might conceptualize in the future.
Think about Leonardo da Vinci, artist, mathematician, inventor, writer, scientist. At a time when only birds could fly and math was done on pen and paper he conceptualized the helicopter and the calculator. We take these ideas for granted now, but 500 years ago these ideas must have seemed impossible fantasy! Even as you read this blog on the internet, a place where people from all over the world can connect, think about how far our computers have come in the last 25 years! As a child I remember playing logos making my little triangle move around the screen by typing in commands. Now we can chat over Skype with friends and family around the world in real time, watch videos for news or pleasure, do banking, go shopping, it seems endless! It is amazing how creativity can dramatically change our world and the "rules" that we apply.
Free play also teaches children how to navigate socially with each other. For the most part my girls play very well together, but when disagreements and squabbles come up I usually wait and see if they can solve the issue on their own. Without my adult interference I have seen my girls come up with unique compromises, things that probably would not have crossed my mind as an option. These solutions seem much more authentic to me and probably resonate more strongly with the girls then if I were to jump in and solve the problem. And the reality is once they are in school or on the playground there will be many times an adult wont be available to solve issues with peers. If they can learn how to share, compromise, and be kind to each other they will be able to confidently move through different social situations without me helicoptering around them.
I remember as a child on nice days my Dad would to send my brother and I outside to play. If we complained that it would be boring he would put a timer in the window set for an hour and tell us we could come in after an hour if we were bored. He told us the world was filled with too many interesting things to do and see for us to be bored. There were many times I begrudged him for this, wishing he would just let me stay inside and watch hours of TV like many of my other friends. But many times, after we finished whining about the injustice of the situation, my brother and I got so caught up in playing we forgot about the timer and stayed outside for many hours.
Even though it has taken me years to admit it, I really thank my Dad for taking this approach. At some point I will likely get my own timer. Hopefully one day my girls will thank me for not playing with them all the time too. And maybe I'll get some house work done... or at least enjoy a chai!