Fostering creativity: Play for play’s sake.

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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?

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  • July 15, 2013 - 5:41 am

    Lilybett - Dear Boy’s only just started being interested in roaming around the yard but it’s now one of our favourite things to do. When it’s drizzly, I stick us in our waterproof coats and let him adventure around the big empty garden. Sometimes I can’t step back – like when he insists on trying to destroy my potato plant – and other times it’s easy. I’ve found stepping back verbally much harder. I spent so long chattering to him and narrating our day when he was smaller that it’s hard to break the habit now. I have to bite my tongue from asking him questions about what he’s doing and giving suggestions that would guide or limit his imagination – ‘ooh, that’s a big flower pot. What are you going to do with that? Are you going to plant some flowers in there?’. Maybe what he really wants to do is wear it as a hat.ReplyCancel

    • July 15, 2013 - 8:36 pm

      Sash - I know, this is my problem as well… not limiting her imagination… it’s a process and I’m working on it! 🙂 xReplyCancel

  • July 15, 2013 - 6:04 am

    Mother Down Under - I have a very similar philosophy to you…we have very few toys that are just toys and can’t be used for some other purpose.
    And I too have trouble sitting back…I know I get too involved and it is something that I am trying to work on.
    I read an really interesting article that found that mothers of girls…wanting them to grow up to be strong, independent women…are more likely to let their girls play on their own and to make their own discoveries while mothers of boys…since “mommies boys” are tolerated in this culture…are more apt to direct play. Food for thought!ReplyCancel

    • July 15, 2013 - 8:36 pm

      Sash - That is a very interesting concept. I’d love to read the article do you remember where you read it? xReplyCancel

  • July 15, 2013 - 1:04 pm

    aussiemor - We have lots of toys but Logan really isn’t interested in anything other than latching on to my leg or In the Night Garden. It’s pretty difficult and I wish he was good at playing with himself and doing imaginative play.

    I think he’ll get there, he’s good at pretending with his kitchen and he’s brrmmming his cars around. I am happy that he’s not obsessed with noisy flashing toys and it makes me feel not so bad about letting him watch a few shows on the laptop each day.

    I feel you on the just sitting back and letting them go though!ReplyCancel

    • July 15, 2013 - 8:35 pm

      Sash - I never thought I’d let Bo watch TV, but I do. I need it. I figure if it’s appropriate and it’s not a primary source of entertainment then it’s fine. It let’s me have a shower… we’re all better for it! 🙂ReplyCancel

  • July 15, 2013 - 5:07 pm

    Biljana - On our very first visit to the doctor she told us that we should never compare our child to another one and I think that’s the best advice that I’ve been given about raising a child.
    We had first birthday party recently and now have a room full of toys. Some of them are educational, some are made of cheep smelly plastic and there’s a ton of stuffed animals. But Sofia is not interested in them at all. She plays all day with block set,few balls and books and set of gummy animals. She loves outdoor plays, pickink leaves,flowers and small stones. She likes when I’m with her, but she doesn’t need me to organize her play time, it seems like she have all planed in her little head.
    Sorry for my bad english, lots of love from a reader from Europe.ReplyCancel

    • July 15, 2013 - 8:35 pm

      Sash - I’m not a fan of the cheap plastic either, it’s a bit unavoidable at times… Bo hasn’t got a lot of interest in it either – it’s lovely to see our little people play in nature isn’t it? xxReplyCancel

  • July 16, 2013 - 9:31 am

    ej - You may have already found it but Janet lansbury has a blog that talks a lot about independent play and respecting your child for the little human that he/she is.

    I have to stop myself from buying my daughter toys when she is perfectly happy digging in the dirt or playing with Tupperware etc.

    I did just find a toy called the Bilbo which is open ended and looks like heaps of fun, might have to get my daughter and her cousins them for Christmas so they can play togetherReplyCancel

    • July 18, 2013 - 1:22 pm

      Sash - the bilibo? Bo was given one recently, I haven’t figured it out… haha. But I think that’s her job. At the moment it is used for dragging books around but it looks like the possibilities are endless!ReplyCancel

      • July 19, 2013 - 9:23 am

        ej - Yes I meant bilibo!ReplyCancel

  • July 16, 2013 - 12:58 pm

    Julie - Jarvis’s favourite toy? Dirt, running on it, rolling on it. Digging in it. He have very little in the way of toys, but he tends to ignore most of them and have more fun either outdoors or in the kitchen cupboards. He favourite thing to do is play the Casio and the recorder at the same time. Deafening and drives me bonkers (plus I am sure the neighbors hate us), but I can cook dinner, and have a shower all while he DJs on the Casio. So dirt and musical instruments amuse Jarvis, neither of which I intervene with, I just let him play.ReplyCancel

    • July 18, 2013 - 1:20 pm

      Sash - He’s a man after my own heart. Nothing better than a bit of dirt 🙂ReplyCancel

  • July 16, 2013 - 7:28 pm

    Kylie - Hi Sash,
    I have just come across your blog and this post- I loved it!!!! I feel the same about the development of our children and the amount of toys and programs we feel we should provide for them. Our three are only small-3,2 and less then one yr. The only program I have ever wanted them to do was swimming lessons as I believe this is an essential life skill that could help them at a young age…however, its so hard juggling that at the moment that even swimming has been put on hold. You could have a room full of toys and our kids are happiest with the empty milk carton and bucket of pegs! I too sit outside and watch them play, whilst I do some work. Its important for them to learn to entertain themselves but know you arent far away. Well done on a lovely blog…..Im keen to follow!ReplyCancel

    • July 18, 2013 - 1:20 pm

      Sash - Thank you so much Kylie! Hope we see you around here more often! Swimming lessons I agree are very important. I haven’t started Bo yet but probably will this summer. xoxReplyCancel

  • July 16, 2013 - 8:07 pm

    Rachel - While I’d love to say this post gels with me — and it does — neither of my two are independent players (yet). One is only 8 months so obviously not there yet but my 2.5 year old isn’t much for independent play yet either. He’s quite exhausting! I like to take the Montessori and Steiner type of approach to encouraging independent play too. But I’m coming to terms with the fact that he’s just not there yet. He still needs me and wants me to play with him and although its hard work (whoever said that being a mum was mind numbing hasn’t sat there counting in 10’s to 100 with my nearly 3 year old). Independent play will come but I think its important to realise that some chilldren will do it early than others. Some children may never do it!
    We’re in a rental with no fence at the moment and looking to move somewhere that there is one because pretty much the only time he comes close to something that resembles a form of independent, imaginative play is outside. I whole heartedly believe that children should spend as much time as possible outside. I really long for some place that we can create a whimsical, fairy garden together — I know he’d love that!ReplyCancel

    • July 18, 2013 - 1:24 pm

      Sash - It’s really hard without a safe backyard isn’t it? Bo’s the same. She’s much more likely to be independent outside than in. I think there is something so freeing for kids in nature… And you’re right, some kids may never do it. You may find that when his little sister is bigger that your big boy might find that it’s not independent/solitary play he needs after all, but he may find his independence in playing side by side with her. How lovely that will be for you to watch (with a hot cup of tea)! 🙂ReplyCancel

    • July 19, 2013 - 9:52 am

      Julie - My 4.5 will not play by herself, never has. Drives me insane. My 18 month will entertain himself a lot. It’s like a breath of fresh air!
      I do find with my oldest is lots of toys are great for her, once she’s played with something worked it out, no matter if its a bucket and spade or a my little pony house, she’s over it and needs something new.
      But I buy the toys second hand so doesn’t cost much.
      I’ve never been big on playing, even as a child I liked to stay with the adults. So don’t worry if your child doesn’t play by themself, but a DVD on for a break.ReplyCancel

  • July 24, 2013 - 7:37 am

    Kylie - Ashloc Designs - This post just spoke to my heart I can’t even describe how exactly it’s makes me feel it just hit something inside of me and said yes yes yes that’s exactly how I feel. I really envy the way you are able to put my thoughts on to the page. I have always wanted to be able to write but I find that I just can’t seem to get the thoughts out of my head the same way as I’m thinking them and you just do it perfectly xxReplyCancel

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