I've been thinking about play lately - what it is, how important it is for kids to do, and mostly whether or not it's important for adults to do with them. My thinking on the subject was feeling muddy and undefined and I never like that feeling.
I have had several different stances on what I believe about whether or not I should be my child's playmate. My thoughts have ranged from The Continuum Concept
beliefs (that parents should not play with children, but should always be invite them into the adult world) to the Playful Parenting
beliefs (that children use play to navigate their emotions and lack of power in the world and that parents should be part of that process).
In a recent message board conversation, I expressed that I believe in a Continuum Concept model with a grain of salt. In other words, I believed that children are hardwired to want to come into the adult world and learn what we do. That play is very important for them, but their interactions with us should be of them moving into the adult world, not us moving into their world of play. But I say "with a grain of salt" because I remember when I only had one child and was pulling heavily from the Continuum Concept beliefs. In some ways it seemed just the way it should be, but we lacked the strong and constantly available community that the tribe in the book had. My child needed a playmate and I (or my husband) was often the only person available.
As the conversation progressed, the other moms expressed their beliefs about play and started defining just what play is.
Some believed that it is very important for parents to play with their
children and had fond memories of their parents playing with them.
Some believed that play is a child's work and they loved interacting with their children in other ways, but not through play.
Some would say "I don't play pretend or play with barbies- I hate it. But I will play basketball or soccer with them."
Others would say, "See basketball and soccer is exactly the kind of play I can't stand. But I will do board games and crafts."
I think everyone agreed that getting on the floor and playing blocks or pretend or dolls with a young child is play, but there was no real consensus about things like sports, board games, arts and crafts, reading children's books or having a conversation about an imaginary scenario while folding laundry.
Some of the moms who initially said "I don't play," later conceded that they do, actually, do things like the above that are considered play by some people. I was one of them.
I have been focusing on unschooling for so long, that I haven't really thought much about play or if I "should" be playing with my kids or what that entails exactly. My focus has been on exploring the world with them and connecting with them, regardless of whether that looks like play or adult activities.
I went searching for my old blog posts on the subject and I found this post titled Playful Parenting vs. Playing By Heart, where I compare and contrast the two books by those names. It was kind of weird reading my own post and thinking, "Huh, yah, I guess I was clear in my thoughts about it at one point, but I forgot!"
That post is a bit more focused on competitive vs. cooperative play than where my mind is focused now, but this still resonates with me:
A lot of the book (Playing by Heart: The Vision and Practice of Belonging) 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.
This is unschooling! Just as real life is not divided into the subjects of math, science, and history, it doesn't have to be divided into work and play. It doesn't matter if arts and crafts are considered play or part of moving the child into the adult world! Are they connecting you and your child? Is your child having fun? Are you doing them as a part of a rich environment, in which you are following her interests and expanding her world? If the answer to those is yes, than she is learning. If she is learning than she is that much closer to functioning in the adult world.
That doesn't mean you have to LIKE every form of play either! It's ok to say "Pretending I'm my child's puppy dog makes me want to rip my eyeballs out." Don't think you have to do it to be a "good mom." But find a way to facilitate the things that are important to your child. That might mean playing those games you hate for a while, especially while your child is young, especially if they are an only or first child. Focus on the connection between you and consider that your reaction might be fear of connection itself. Or find your child a playmate (even another adult!) who likes that form of play. Or connect with your child so much in ways you both enjoy that they are genuinely ok with you saying that you don't want to play that particular game.
I no longer care whether I'm "one of those moms who gets on the floor and plays" or "one of those moms who never plays, but connects in other ways." I connect with my kids in ways we both enjoy. I stretch myself to do things that I don't particularly enjoy in the name of connection or their learning. I'm not afraid to say that games like Chutes and Ladders make me want to run screaming from the room. I'm glad that I pushed myself to do it some with my oldest, to get past my fear of connection. I facilitate the play I don't prefer in other ways.
Above all, I will live life focused on relationships and learning, and not divide it into work and play.