Some of my favorite memories growing up were pretending and playing with my sisters and brother. Sometimes, we were inside playing with dolls, toy horses, or little ceramic animals – with each, playing out their family lives and school days. Sometimes, we were outside building forts in the hay barn or pretending we were part of a tribe of 19th Century Native Americans down in the pasture by the creek.
I don’t have a lot of memories of playing with either of my parents when I was younger. My mom liked to have tickle fights on occasion, and my dad would let us pretend he was a horse sometimes, but for the most part, their part in our play was to gave us the resources – and encourage the imagination – to allow us to come up with our own play games.
For example, I remember getting a toy tractor and grain wagon and some toy animals for a birthday one year. My mom had built a red- and white-painted barn out of wood, brought in a cup of corn, and showed me how to load up the toy wagon with corn and pull it behind the tractor to the animals in the barn. I had a lot of fun with that. I also fondly remember a playhouse my dad built for us and how my mom showed me how to pretend to cook the leaves of mallow weeds. I would spend hours picking mallow and shredding the leaves to make a salad to be enjoyed by my sister who would pretend to eat it.
These are just a couple examples of how Mom and Dad built and demonstrated, but wouldn’t get too involved in the actual playing and never tried to direct what we pretending.
I know some families who feel the need to be involved in nearly every moment of play with their children. They actively participate in putting puzzles together and drawing pictures and building blocks and playing in the sandbox. That’s not for me. I’ll help get the puzzles out, I’ll get my kids their crayons or watercolor paint and some paper, I’ll show my kids how to build sandcastles using little buckets and shovels. But, I’d much rather they come up with their own ideas for playing and pretending. I like to sit back and watch, so to speak (it’s more likely I’m writing an article or cleaning up the kitchen or feeding the goats), to see what pretend games my kids can come up with on their own. Frequently, I’m quite surprised by their creativity.
At this moment, my kids are pretending to wash their plastic dishes using the top of the firewood box (for our wood-burning stove) in our living room. Suddenly, my two-year-old daughter starts running around the couch announcing that a tickle monster is after her, and my three-year-old daughter consoles her by telling her the monster is actually just a cow. Then, they’re sitting in the bottom of the coat closet, dressed up in my scarves and gloves and pretending they’re riding a train. My two-year-old asks where the monster is at, and her sister replies that it’s under the rug. Who’s actually under the rug? The cat, who notices the kids are looking at her and runs into the kitchen.
I get up from my computer to make sure the cat doesn’t get hurt and usher the kids back into the living room, where they sit atop the firewood box again, this time piled high with pillows. Looks like they’re settling in for a few minutes. My oldest asks the youngest if she’d like to read books and goes to the shelf in my office to get a couple books to read to her sister. Sweet. That lasts a little while, and then I notice a couple books on the floor so I say to pick them up. Both get to work, collecting books off the floor and in other assorted places like the couch and from the closet, my oldest quoting a character off a cartoon she saw recently, “Run like the wind!” and hurrying to pick up as many as she can as quickly as she can. And now, they’re changing into swimsuits and announcing to me that they’re going to swim in the sea of honey.
Wow, that’s amazing – how much imagination and ingenuity they’re displaying, and how much they’re learning about getting along with others and taking responsibility! I think spending time with our kids is vitally important, but I also think giving children unstructured and relatively unsupervised (in that we don’t direct their play but that we are aware of what they’re doing, so they’re not writing on the wall or doing something dangerous) is critical to helping our children develop their social and problem-solving skills and creativity.
Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of times that I play with my kids, but I’d much rather leave the pretend play up to the imagination of their young minds.