By Sarah Johnson
When my daughter was about 2, I spent a lot of time being someone else.
Like many toddlers, one of her favorite games was role playing. Most days, she would at some point say, “You be ____ and I be ____.” This was our cue to get into character and be, depending on the day, Rachel and Alma (big sisters of two of her friends), Buddy and Sunshine (dogs from our neighborhood), airplane pilot and co-pilot, or, my favorite, Dolly Parton and Norah Jones, who recorded a duet that we listened to a lot at the time.
Dogs and pilots are pretty straightforward, but I remember feeling a little mystified about how to inhabit the character of Dolly Parton. Or even harder: Doc Watson and Drew Emmitt (we listen to a lot of bluegrass music). Then I realized I was making the job more difficult than it needed to be, because all I really needed to do was whatever she told me to do.
Child-directed play is a challenge for a lot of parents. In theory, it’s easy, because you just sit there and let your child take the lead. Most of us, though, approach play with an agenda, whether we realize it or not, and turn it into something that feels a bit like work.
We adults often want a game to be a learning opportunity: Playing blocks becomes a way to test a child’s knowledge of colors, numbers, letters or whatever else is pictured on the blocks. We also tend to have an idea of how a game should go: You don’t get to go straight to the Gumdrop Mountains in Candyland; when you color the sky it should be blue; and Dolly Parton doesn’t sing “Let It Go.”
The movie soundtrack from “Frozen” might drive us crazy, but there is an upside: “Let It Go” is a great mantra for parents when it comes to things like child-directed play.
The benefits of play are numerous and well documented. Carolyn Webster-Stratton, PhD, says in her book, “The Incredible Years,” that play provides children with “opportunities for them to learn who they are, what they can do and how to relate to the world around them.”
Play is generally regarded as the “work of children,” and it really is one of the few times when they can be given most or even all of the control in a situation (within the limits of safety, of course). When a caring and supportive adult stays involved with the play and allows himself or herself to be directed by the child, their relationship invariably becomes stronger.
Webster-Stratton explains that unstructured and supportive play “allows your children to try out their imaginations, explore the impossible and the absurd, test new ideas, make mistakes, express feelings, make friends, solve problems and gradually gain confidence in their own thoughts and ideas.”
This is not to say that you need to be involved in all of your child’s play. There are all kinds of benefits to independent play, play with peers, etc., too. Nor do you need to spend huge amounts of time on it. We offer The Incredible Years as a parent group at The Parenting Place, and the assignment after the first night of class is to commit just 15 minutes a day to child-directed play.
As parents, there are always other pressing things that need to get done, and sometimes we’re just plain tired – although there are ways around that, too. A friend of mine has regular posts on her Facebook page with the title “best ways to play with your kid while you’re lying on the couch.” I think I may need to mine her page for some blog ideas!
But good relationships are dependent on good time spent together. Fifteen minutes of child-directed play is a quick and easy investment with big payoffs. Letting your child take charge of those 15 minutes can actually be fun and gives you a fascinating peek into what’s going on in that little mind.
You might even get the chance to be Dolly Parton.