Something that makes motherhood easier!

Friday, August 22, 2014

camping in Big Bear

How much do you value your child's ability to play independently for long stretches of time?  I value it IMMENSELY.   It's in my top 3 qualities that I want to nurture in my kids (along with empathy and contentment and faith and genuineness- ok, there are lots.)

What is independent play?  It's when your child plays happily in their own little world (without having to rely on electronics). I've heard it described as "deep play"- that zone your kid gets in when they are totally and unselfconsciously wrapped up in play.  Time doesn't exist. You barely exist.  As a baby, it probably consists of manipulating simple objects and toys, gnawing them, banging them.  As a toddler, it usually means toddling around, discovering and rediscovering the space around them.  As a preschooler, it means pretending and imagining new worlds either on their own or with friends.  When Sisi is playing independently, she has a sort of faraway look in her eyes.  She is often talking or singing to herself while creating some melodrama with sticks and pine needles.  Sometimes she's just sprawled out on the grass, talking to the clouds.

What does independent play look like for me?  As a mom, it means FREEDOM!!!  It means sitting on the couch while reading my kindle. Prepping tonight's dinner.  Scouring etsy for new wall art for baby #2's nursery.  Or blogging like I'm doing right now.  It means a well-deserved break from taking care of Sisi's needs, because she needs nothing but her own imagination, some twigs, and dirt for the next hour.  We are both free.

Sisi is about ready to give up her last remaining nap, but I'm not even worried about it.   In fact, she's been in her darkened room for over an hour, chatting to herself and her stuffed animals.  She's not napping per se, but  we still get our much-needed quiet time to recharge.  And anyway, I get enough breaks during the day because Sisi knows how to play without me (and enjoys it!) I would say I get at least 3 or 4 extended breaks (each between 30-90 minutes) throughout the day where Sisi is doing her own thing in the house or the garden.

Ok, so it probably sounds like I'm just bragging up a storm right now.  "You just got an easy kid!" is what you're thinking.  Or "You have a house with a fully enclosed yard, what would you do in an apartment?"    Perhaps Sisi is on the mellower side, and yes, our home is definitely kid safe and conducive to free play, but I really do believe any child in any space can learn to play independently.  We didn't just hope she'd learn to play by herself, we expected it.  We prioritized it.

In one of my favorite parenting books, Bringing Up Bebe, one image that always pops up in my mind is that of the French mom at the park.  She is calm, relaxed, chatting with a friend, while her child plays happily in the field with a ball.  Just one ball.  Contrast that with the author, an American mom, who has lugged bags and bags of toys to that same park, and who must entertain and interact with her child almost the entire time. She's following the child, saying "Wheeeee~" every time the kid slides down the slide.  The magazine that she brought with her goes untouched, but she didn't expect to read it anyway. Which mom is going to have more fun at the park?  The Frenchie, of course.

I try to channel my inner French mom often.  To do that requires a certain philosophy: that independent play is great for mom.  It's not selfish to expect your kid to play by himself, rather it's necessary to make motherhood pleasurable and sustainable.  It's also super good for kid.  It allows the child to learn about the world at his or her own pace.  In their own little world they can be creative, content, and learn to turn boredom into a spark of genius.  It's an extremely useful life skill, although it doesn't always look like anything mind-blowing.

Here are my top 5 tips for getting kids to develop the skill of independent play.

1. Don't Interrupt.  Today at the children's museum, Sisi played for 45 minutes in the water area, her favorite exhibit.  As I zoned out on the bench people-watching, I noticed how many parents swooped in and dragged their kids away from the water area after 5-10 minutes. "Come on Jackson, all done water, let's go do an art project!"  Their kids had been happily splashing and watching toy boats, and could have probably stayed there as long as Sisi did.  But after a few minutes the parents seemed to get antsy and wanted the child move on to the next thing.  Perhaps they were trying to get their money's worth and hit up all the exhibits, or maybe they didn't want their kids to get too wet, but that is one way to sabotage independent play.  Why can't the kid just splash around for 20-30-60 minutes?  Lots of people compliment Sisi on her long attention span, but I wonder if many kids have actually been discouraged from focusing on one thing for too long???  If your kid wants to do nothing at the park but feel the sand between his fingers, will you just let him be?  Or will you suggest he hit up the slide, swings, and monkey bars to make the trip "worth it"?

2.  Simplify the Play Space.  Another absolutely genius parenting book, Simplicity Parenting, suggests you cut your kids' toys in half.  Then in half again, and perhaps again.  Completely declutter the play space (and the whole house while you're at it) and just watch the kid engage deeply with the few toys they have left.  We learned early to give Sisi simple, open-ended toys that don't light up or make lots of noise.  Babies don't need all the bells and whistles.  We've all noticed that our babies seem to enjoy the gift wrap more than the fancy toy, right?  When the toys are too complicated and there are too many of them, kids get overwhelmed and usually don't want to play with them.   When Sisi was a baby, I often put her in a play pen with just a few toys, and was amazed when she'd play for almost an hour thoroughly exploring that small space. Now, as a preschooler, she has 2 boxes of toys and a small bookshelf.  That's it! Too much choice leads to stress and ambivalence, which are not at all conducive to independent play.

On the same topic, don't assume that your kid needs to do some super special outing each and every day. I think we unwittingly turn our kids into adrenaline junkies when it's good for kids to be bored at home once in a while. I was talking to a hilarious Grandma at the children's museum.  She said her grandkids have season passes to the zoo, museum, amusement parks, trampoline parks, etc.  Every time she babysits, their mom has something spectacular planned for them.  "I don't understand why we can't just stay home and play with all the toys that are gathering dust in their playroom?  Why do I always feel like I have to take them on a grand tour of Southern California when I babysit?"  I hear ya, grams!  

3.  Don't say much.  In addition to cutting out the toy clutter, cut out the verbal clutter.  Avoid excessive praise ("You threw the ball?  Awesome!!!"), micromanaging ("Make the dolly drink from the bottle like this!"), or social direction ("Billy wants the toy, so you should be nice and let him play with it.")

I'm noticing more and more how when I interrupt Sisi's deep play with questions or commentary about what she's doing, it snaps her abruptly out of her little world and she actually looks a little embarrassed, as if I've caught her doing something wrong.  Deep play is such a private, all-engaging activity for her that I realize it's better to just let her be and only speak if totally necessary.

By keeping a respectful distance while they are playing, you are preventing the "Look at me, mommy!" scenario where a kid doesn't feel like he's truly playing unless someone is there to witness and validate him.

4.  Make togetherness count.  I do play with Sisi sometimes.  We have special moments throughout the day when she gets my full and enthusiastic attention.  At mealtimes, we sit together, chat and enjoy the food together.  Before naps and bedtime, we snuggle on her bed and read books and Bible stories (and often sing songs and tickle and act very silly.)  Before bath time, I try to get out her remaining energy with a game of hide and seek, duck duck goose, laundry basket basketball,  or general rough and tumble play.  When I'm on, I'm on.  I make those moments of togetherness count.  That means no phones, no internet.  When you have solid bonding rituals that your kids can depend on, I think they feel free and safe to play on their own most of the day.

5.  Limit electronics and screen time.  This is the one that's hard to hear, isn't it?  We are certainly not electronic-less. I let Sisi watch 20 minutes of Little Mermaid every other day, and sometimes short videos on youtube about something she's curious about (volcanoes, geckos, whatever the hot topic du jour happens to be.)  But that's it.  I've read lots of articles about how technology hampers development in the very young.  I think commercials (and even just shows and movies themselves) make kids want a bunch of crappy toys and crappy food that they don't need.  But most importantly, and contrary to popular belief, I think it makes parenthood HARDER.  We got into a rut a year ago when Sisi was watching a little bit of TV almost every day.  I justified it, saying I needed time to prep dinner during that five o'clock "witching hour".  But what struck me was how much moodier Sisi was after watching, and how much she bugged me to watch more and more and more.  Managing her screen time was taking way too much of my energy, that the few minutes of peace and quiet it bought me just weren't worth it.   Now, I find that 20 minutes every other day is that sweet spot where she is not addicted, and her mood isn't really affected.  My husband wishes she had zero exposure, but now that she's 3 1/2, I don't see the harm in letting her watch just a tad so she'll start to learn some of the cultural references that her friends talk about.

In conclusion, independent play makes motherhood calmer, happier, and dare I say relaxing much of the time!  Hopefully, I can try to encourage the same independent spirit in baby #2.  He's a boy, by the way :)

My favorite resources on the topic:


Rachel September 3, 2014 at 3:33 PM  

You really slipped that in there! Baby boy! So exciting!

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