Monday, January 11, 2010

Playful Parenting vs. Playing by Heart

I read Playful Parenting a while ago and I really liked it. At the time, I was using some Continuum Concept ideas to reinforce my belief that "I'm just not one of those moms that gets on the floor and plays." I've never been a very playful person, even as a kid. So it was easy for me to latch on to the idea that kids are designed to want to mimic us, and we should include them in our world, not spend our time playing in their world. I do still believe that is probably the *ideal* way things should be, however, as much as I would like to, I don't live in a community the way the tribes in Continuum Concept did. I think that the community lifestyle makes all the difference, because kids do *need* to play and need people to play with and in a community it is easy for them to play with other kids *while still observing and being included in adult life* all at the same time. I simply can't provide that atmosphere for my children.

Reading Playful Parenting highlighted for me the power of play in children's emotional and cognitive development and helped me to see that I do need to be more involved in their play. Since I can't provide a Continuum Concept ideal, I need to be the playmate my children need as well as provide them opportunities to play with other kids as often as possible. It's a stretch for me, but I am learning to play, loosen up, relax.

In Playful Parenting, the author discussed how children use play to work through issues with which they are struggling, and to regain power in a world that leaves them powerless at every turn. For example, a child who gets spanked might turn around and spank her baby doll to work out the emotional trauma and feel a sense of power that was lost. He suggests letting the child do the directing and being careful not to over take their imaginary world. If they invite you into their imaginary world, you are their guest. So, when the child has you pretend to be a dog and tells you to sit and stay, go along with it. When you wrestle, give them a run for their money, but let them win. Most importantly, learn to communicate well and follow their cues, so you'll know when they need more rough and tumble play, when they need some space, and when they are working out some emotional hurt that role playing might help.

All of this helped me get on the floor with my kids more and be more involved in E's imaginary world. However, I just read Playing By Heart and it challenged some of the ideas from Playful Parenting. This author talked about all the different ways we use the word play. We play games, play with someone's heart, play war, play politics. A person can be a player in a game or a player as in a womanizer. He pointed out that most of what we call play is actually competition. Sometimes the stakes are just bragging rights as the best monopoly player in the family. Sometimes the stakes are life and death. But the goal is always *power* over another person, another team, another faction, another country.

He pointed out how adults often see children's play. It is viewed as fine as long it is constructive and doesn't last too long. Constructive might mean making something creative, playing a sport or for some it is "a child's work." In other words, it is valuable so long as it is the equivalent of work. And certain types of play mustn't last past a certain age or the child (or the adult they become) risks being called immature, childish, irresponsible, having their head in the clouds, unrealistic, foolish. And of course, play is what one is supposed to do in their "free time" when all work is done.

The author called the alternative "original play" which is more primitive and primal than what we think of as play. It is not competitive and doesn't require a winner or a loser. It's about fun! Imagine that! A lot of the book was about how original play connects people and builds relationships rather than tearing them down. It's not something we do in our free time, it's something that is a part of the way we can live. It brought me back to all the reading I've been doing on mindful living and meditation. Original play is another aspect to staying in the moment, present and aware. It's living life right now and seeing all the joy and the beauty right in front of us. Experiencing that joy and playing with that moment and the people in it, is original play. Unlike the type of play suggested in Playful Parenting, original play doesn't have an agenda. It's not a "method" to help kids work through issues (though I'm sure it does) or make them be more complient (though when I am more connected to my kids they are always more cooperative) or improve attention span or sneak in a math fact or.... It's about relationship!

So, this book brought me full circle. I imagine that the lifestyle portrayed in Continuum Concept was full of original play. When the people in that tribe wore their babies, nursed on request, let them play unhindered and invited them to join in adult work as they chose they weren't subscribing to a "parenting method." They were just living and experiencing every moment of life and putting the relationships of the ones they loved above all else. I remember a story in the book about a grown man getting badly injured, laying his head in his wife's lap and sobbing unabashedly in front of the whole tribe. No one seemed to think that this was anything unusual or childish for him to do. He had no ego to protect and they had no need to assert their power by shaming him for crying. He needed to cry, so he did, his wound was stitched up and he went on his way.

Now where does this leave me as the mother of children in an extremely competitive world? As a woman who enjoys sports and competition myself? Where does it leave us as a family who lives apart from our community, and whose community may or may not feel the same way about play? That's what I'm still trying to figure out. I'm not going to take a reactionary view of competition and forbid sports and throw out all our board games. But I will certainly be more careful with how I present competition to my children and most importantly how I interact when I play with them. Competition is a part of life in our culture, and they may grow up to be in the thick of it as a basketball player or lawyer or soldier. But I want their foundation and over-all lifestyle to be one of original play, regardless of the career path they choose or the hobbies they enjoy. I hope that their most important relationships will always be based on love, not fear-based power struggles.

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