All you have to do is walk down a toy aisle in a department store to see an overwhelming amount of toys that are geared towards “educating” our children. I get it. As a parent I want what is best for my child. I want to give her the best start in her life and I want her to have the best future that I can give her. Like all parents, really, my dreams are for her now. This is why these so called educational toys are so popular, toys that teach newborns how to kick in time with the music, toys that light up and buzz and fire out words in different languages and teach shapes and colours and… and… and… but are they really teaching our kids or are they just overstimulating our kids? Does play always need to be educational?
Children don’t need toys that do it all for them. They don’t need app’s and dvd’s and toddler classes all designed to teach them new skills. None of these things are going to hurt them, so if it’s your thing and you’re into it then go, do it… do your thing. But if it’s not your thing (and it’s really not mine) then please, don’t feel pressured to spend hundreds (or, thousands) on children’s education toys, lessons, programs etc. for fear that your toddler is going to get left behind in a sea of teeny tiny competition. It’s not a race guys. It’s not a competition. So your kid talks first, my kid walks first, your kid can count in french and that other kid can do a double back-flip and my kid licks the glass… whatever. It just doesn’t matter. It isn’t a competition. We need to stop comparing our children to each other in some sick parenting fight-to-the-top. Our children are NOT pawns. They are people. Little tiny people with their own needs. And the one thing that children need more than anything in the world is play for play’s sake. Not structured learning play. Not being quizzed on flash cards or plonked in front of an educational DVD. What they need most is play.
Good old fashioned, imaginative play. As a parent it is our job to foster creativity, to encourage play and to give children a safe place to explore and to have control over their own learning. Good old fashioned play is arguably the most “educational” of all… children learn the things they need to learn, as the need arises. That’s the beauty of human growth and development. Walking comes when the child needs it to, so does speech. We don’t need to teach a child to walk or talk, we just need to be present as an example to follow and to trust that the child will indeed follow, when they need to.
There are a thousand and one contradictory parenting theories around, they are pushed on unsuspecting new parents. Parenting labels that dictate how you watch over your child, parenting books and theories that push parents to behave in certain ways. For me the biggest challenge I have found thus far in my own parenting journey is finding a balance between being present and attentive and ensuring that I am not interfering in her own journey of self discovery. I have a habit of wanting to butt in, to pipe up with a suggestion, to as her what she is doing, to show her a “better” way. None of these things are helpful, I know this, but I also yearn to be involved. So I try to find a balance. To understand when to step back (and shut my big mouth) and let her find her own way. She likes me to be close by, she likes to imitate action (another element of play we will discuss in the future I’m sure) and to watch me… but she needs her own space too. So I sit out the back on the steps with my own work. My books and my notepad so she’s knows where I am and she can check in periodically when she needs me, and I work with one eye on her as she roams the back yard. I can hear her chattering to the world. Telling her imaginary companions stories and moving things around the yard like a tiny person on a mission all of her own. Sometimes when I watch her I feel like my heart is going to burst, because she is just so much of herself now, she is less and less of me and more of herself every day and it is painfully, joyfully beautiful thing to be privileged enough to see.
She is busy when she is at play. As I watch, I find I experience her learning all on her own. She doesn’t need me to teach her. She has seen me do these things, and I watch as she navigates new skills all alone. Trying again and again until she gets it right. She is, like all other children, resilient and patient. She tries and falls, and immediately she gets up again and tries again, committed to her own development, sure of her own ability to master new skills. She is already all of these things without my input at all. She learns how to climb over the short walls and how to balance on the steps without falling, she learns how to move her body to get under the bench to reach the flowers. She begins to transfer things from one bucket to another and to move them around the yard. I provide her with very little. I give her new experiences. I give her new places to explore and she gets simple tools to play with. Shovels and buckets, cars and trucks, pencils and paper, chalk and concrete, water and sand. My job is to foster her creativity, not to guide it. My job is to set boundaries for her safety not for her imagination.
It is said that play is the very basis for a child to develop their imagination which in turn is the very basis of a persons identity. I remember a world of imagination that I lived in as a child (that I still live in, at times) and it is one of the most precious things I ever owned in my childhood, the vast, colourful landscape of my mind. For my girl, I want this and more and the best thing I can do to ensure this is to give her a safe place to play and the freedom to experience life for herself. To play for play’s sake, and see where that takes her, free to change her mind and to go from flower to bird song to trail of ants on the ground without anyone interrupting her path.
How do you make decisions about what toys your kids play with? Are you able to step back and let kids play alone?