Last week I, so fortunately, spent a few days attending the International Play Association's Triennial Conference. Play lovers and advocates from around the world came to Calgary to share ideas, learnings and obviously, to play!
There were so many things I learned - lots and lots of research and we all know how much I love research - and as I've been trying to figure out what to share I think it's boiled down to the two biggest themes.
1 - Children Want to Play
In every session that I attended, no matter who was presenting or how it was presented, there was one thing that NEVER changed. All children have an innate desire to play. When asked, they ALWAYS say they want to play, they want more time to play, more play - period.
2 - Adults are Ruining Play
Not to be a downer but the other reappearing theme was this: we constantly get in the way our children playing. We are busy, we are worried, we don't want people to think we are bad parents - the list goes on.
Right, so there they are, the two things that came up constantly. Two opposites that go hand in hand. Parents and children - one wants to play while the other hinders it. And I don't believe parents are fun-hating, evil beings trying to squash the play out of every child. I can even understand where a lot of parents are coming from - I am a parent, after all. One of the biggest reasons that parents listed for not allowing their children to play was risk of ill-intentioned adults. And while, statistically, this is more rare than being struck by lightening, it's still a difficult gamble to take. Despite my unlocked-door-childhood I now live in a home where the less than desirable happenings in this world are a reality. I happen to be married to someone who sees the worst of this world first-hand and telling him the probability of an abduction does absolutely nothing to calm his fears.
So how do we reconcile these things? How do we allow our children the important freedom of play while still reasonably keeping them safe? I don't know for sure but here are some thoughts:
1- Let your children lead their play. Be there with them, sure, take them outside, be in the yard, walk with them down to the ravine - but let them choose, guide and decide for themselves. One of the most important pieces of play is their ability to regulate it for themselves! And hey parents, doesn't this sound like a nice break? "Stop that" "No, don't touch that" "Get away from that" How nice would it be to just put all those to the side? To take a deep breath outside, check out the clouds or the swirls in the water while it flows? Their playtime becomes your break time.
2- Let go of specific destinations and expectations. We seem to focus so much on the destination in life that we forget how much fun the journey can be. Walking to the park for example, that's a real adult-y thing to do. What if it's just a walk and you make it halfway to the park? It might take an hour, but children have this incredible pace, a pace that allows them to see everything. They notice the crack in the pathway or the dandelions growing in the grass. They notice the neighbour has a broken solar lamp or their green cart is still on the road. They don't care about getting to the park in five minutes, they just love the "getting there." Talk it out - don't sell it as a walk to the park - it's just a trip outside.
3- Trust your gut and assess their risk. Kids should play, they should fall and get hurt and disagree with other children. They should experience different environments and weather. They should also have a trusted caregiver for those moments that they might not expect. That's what we are here for! Let's not holler at them for every move they make but let's also feel empowered to talk to them about their choices and evaluate the real risks involved with what they are doing.
4- Stop caring so much about what other people might think. This is very honestly one of the top concerns of parents and why they won't allow their children to play. But let's be honest - this is not limited to play. Parents live in this weird world of constantly measuring themselves up to what they see other parents doing online or what they chat to each other about at the bus stop, hockey rink, playground, etc. What's funny is almost every time I talk to someone about parenting - you know, honestly talk to someone about it, we relate! We happen to be on the same page, we happen to have shared experiences that involve the less-than-Facebook-worthy moments. Let's just get real, share honestly and follow our hearts when it comes to raising our children - not someone's news feed.
For more on play, and why it matters, check this out. I leave you all with this heart warming video from the International Play Association - children in their most natural state - PLAY.