One of the things that surprises me about motherhood is the way children play. I always imagined play was a reflex and was something that kids automatically knew how to do, such as breathing. There are certain aspects to play that are not as natural and inherent as I imagined. Playing independently for longer than five minutes seems to be a learned skill and maybe this is something Megan and Jessica will develop as they get older.
Right now, at aged 4 and under, Megan and Jessica’s play is short and chaotic. It involves a lot of destruction – ripping, messing, dumping, chucking, unravelling and unpacking – and then it usually ends with tears and a demand to be hugged or carried, like this:
Based on my own experience and that of friends in the area, it appears that children assume their parents are their playmates. Can I tell you a secret? No parent admits this because of course we all adore our precious babies but playing with toddlers every day for long periods of time is actually kind of boring. Did I just say that out loud? Oops.
There was once an article that did the rounds on Facebook. There was a picture of a mother at a playground and she was engrossed in her cell phone. The writer wrote a shaming piece about how this woman should put down the technology and connect with her kids. Life is short, the article said, and children are precious and need our time and attention so stop pecking at your iPhone in their presence. ‘What a judgmental article’, I thought. Maybe that woman was a stay-at-home mother and had already had quality time with her children that day. I also catch up on my whatsapping at the playground. Do you have any idea how boring playgrounds can be, especially if you visit them multiple times a week?
I love being with my poppets but I find it tiring that they prefer to play with me or beside me. Their favourite place is on the iPad, the TV or my lap. I often say to Megan, ‘Go off and play. Play! PLAY. Why aren’t you PLAYING?’
My love and gratitude for Megan and Jessica is deep and intense and because this is a passing season and time flies, I feel I must soak up every moment. If my girls want me to play with them, I mostly put it above other tasks and feel guilty saying ‘later’ or ‘no’.
A friend said that she analysed her life and realised that one of the reasons why she is permanently knackered is because of the pressure she feels to be her son’s playmate. Her son loves trains and so he likes to play them with his mom. He doesn’t want her to necessarily interact with him. He wants her to sit on the floor next to him. He is happy if she plays with some trains and he plays with others. She feels this push-pull of emotions (love, gratitude but also boredom, frustration and guilt) because she cherishes the time she has with her little boy yet she finds it mind-numbing sitting on all fours steering Thomas the Tank Engine round and round the tracks on the lounge floor.
This mindset that we need to be our children’s playmate must be a modern phenomenon. Back in the old days, parents didn’t have vast swathes of time to always play with their kids and the children didn’t expect it either. I doubt they felt any less loved. All family members, even toddlers, were too busy doing household chores such as feeding the animals, milking the cows, cleaning the chicken coop, ploughing the fields or carrying pails of water up from the river. All that physical labour, fresh air and sunshine must have been so healthy and calming for children. Sometimes when Megan can’t concentrate and is bored and at my feet, I reckon that feeding the chickens would do her the world of good.
One of my theories why children don’t play well independently is because we parents are watching them constantly. We like to keep them within eyesight or calling distance in order to protect them from drowning, suffocating, choking hazards, falls, paedophiles and child snatchers. We never leave children alone without adult supervision so it is no wonder they assume we are their playmates, best friends and buddies.
Our hovering must surely affect the quality of their play, especially with friends. I struggle to be around mothers who referee their children’s play. It’s annoying. Having Mom solve squabbles and coordinate the sharing of toys is probably one of the reasons why 21st century kids are so delicate and wussy. My theory is that, from the earliest age possible, children should learn to stand up for themselves and resolve their play conflicts themselves.
I see now that there are some aspects of play that need to be taught or demonstrated. I didn’t know that when I first became a mother. The other day I looked after a friend’s child. He is the same age as Megan. The afternoon was not as successful as I expected, mainly because they lacked direction. It had been raining and I had seen lots of earthworms rolling in the soil. I gave them each a bucket and spade and suggested they dig for worms. They looked at me like startled cattle. It was a simple activity that I assumed came naturally to any child but they needed guidance and a demonstration.
They half-heartedly filled a bucket with mud and then tipped it on the terrace, just outside the door so I had to leap over it to get outside. I find that usually 20 minutes of inventive, creative play by Megan requires 20 minutes of cleaning by me.
Later that afternoon, I overheard Megan say to her friend, ‘I will be Jesus on the cross.’ Kids are baffling – they couldn’t dig for worms with any enthusiasm yet they were keen to re-enact the crucifixion.
I’ve realized that my girls are less interested in plastic made-in-China toys and prefer playing with things round the house such as plasters, wrapping paper, sticky tape, cutlery, crockery and Tupperware. A box of plasters costs CHF4 and amuses Megan for up to 45 minutes, which I think is excellent value for money.
Now that Megan is getting older, I see glimpses of direction and structure in her play. Her creativity and imagination blow me away. I took this photo of a dinner table she set for Peppa Pig and George, complete with a music box in the centre of the arrangement. Cute hey? The result of independent, content, organised play – hitting the sweet spot, I say.