|Playing or teaching?|
I have no idea what the answer is to the question, should parents and caregivers play with their children? I am, however, quite certain there’s more than one answer. Moreover, I think we don’t have an answer because we are not even asking the question.
Recently I have posed this question to friends and colleagues in museums, in early childhood programs, and to parents. There’s no hesitation in their responses, at least initially. Whether they say, yes, why, or no, they pause and inevitably shift directions. Well, of course! might be followed by Why not? An emphatic No, they just get in the way might be followed by a pause and, I get bored playing with my kids. I always enjoy being asked, But, you do think play is important, don’t you?
Wanting parents and caregivers to play with children seems like a gem of an idea. We believe in the value of play and with the recent decline in opportunities for children to play, we are eager for more play opportunities. We know the parent and caregiver relationship with the child has life-long significance; that bond could be cultivated during play. In museums and on playgrounds we might also think, what else do these adults have to do anyway?
So, why isn’t adults playing with children such an obviously terrific idea that everybody gets?
It is, as they say, complicated. Realistically, sometimes adults as playmates advance these broader interests and sometimes they detract from them. For instance, if we view play as child-directed, then adults entering the play frame can crimp joyous child-directed unfolding play. Even if they don't intend to, adults will hijack play or pre-write the script; they may remember their own play. It can be difficult for a 6-year old to accommodate a parent’s fully scripted delightedly repeated childhood memory of “Little House on the Prairie.”
If as research shows that play is a valuable way for children to be with other children and figure out ideas with peers, then parents as playmates may be limiting development of valued social skills. And, when play becomes a duty for either the parent or the child (“I can’t disappoint dad, he really wants to play with me”), play loses the spontaneous, freely chosen quality fundamental to its spirit. Furthermore, if one person’s play is motivated by obligation and the other’s by the sheer joy of stacking sofa cushions to make a snake pit, then play is sorely imbalanced.
In general, children make better playmates for other children than do adults. Even across a wide age range, children share interests, energy levels, current references, and a sense of humor. Parents–adults in general–may not be able to pick up the child’s cues during play, which evolves constantly, incorporating new ideas that sweep in from the edges of the play frame. The castle has become an underground cave; the block is a phone, a shoe is a candy bar. The rules of play that are important for children to negotiate may not be recognized at all by adults as worthy rules. But to children they are and they may also need to be broken immediately to advance the play.
On the other hand, if we value parent and caregiver involvement in the child’s learning (and play is one of the ways children learn), then playing with their children may be a valuable opportunity for parents to get a closer look at their child’s learning.
So, do we want parents and caregivers to play with their children? Of course there is no simple or single answer. In which setting? Museums, home, school, backyards, playgrounds? One answer doesn’t fit all settings, all museums, or even one museum all the time. Children of what age? What kind of play? What’s the context? What else is going on?
These are not idle questions. With relatively few opportunities for children to engage in extensive play that they direct, it is important to expand, not limit, play opportunities. Making it easy for children to play freely with other children is important; it's not filling the void with adults pressured or being guilted into play.
What might help? By exploring the larger question with others and pursuing new questions, we may be better navigating this territory, even if we don’t arrive at one place or stay there for long.
What roles are adult taking? There is often a hidden agenda when adults play with children. They may be directing large motor play out of caution so children won’t get hurt. Involvement may be motivated by making play more valuable, for learning academics. Pressure, however, is no friend to play.
|Who's playing now?|
If adult involvement in play is to correct or bring order, that’s a problem. I recently visited a “play and ingenuity” magnet school for kindergarten through 6th grade. In the 90 minutes we were introduced to the school’s approach, it became apparent that play was used for group management. It was fun and well done, but it was not play. The point of play is that there is no point, no agenda, no pre-determined outcomes.
|In play, blue blocks become a lava flow become an obstacle course|
Can adults really join the play without changing it? Without some attunement to children’s play, adults may not really get the flow of the play or the rules. Adults may alter the play context with their suggestions, normalize the story lines, and extend or cut short the play. On the other hand, if adults follow the child’s lead and engage in playful interactions with them, they may move the play along, as an older peer might.
Whose play is it? Even when the child is leading and telling the adult what to do, it might not be play. Bossing ruins play processes fueled by negotiation and figuring things out together. In play, children may deal with the crying baby, the angry mother, the scary robber, or the super hero in quick succession. Are adults able to keep up with that and negotiate with children in good faith?
Who gets to decide whether adults playing with children is a good idea in this setting or situation? In play, children can choose not to play. If the adult–parent, teacher, timekeeper, and general boss–is the play partner, can the child walk away and call it quits? If not, the play set up is probably not a great idea.
Should we expect parents and caregivers to play with their children? If we are serious about the benefits of play for children, we must get seriously better at providing more opportunities for child-initiated, directed, and unscripted play with adult-free options. This doesn’t mean that adults need to disappear, but they may need to step out of the way. Here are some thoughts of what this might look like.
• Parents and caregivers can do many wonderful things with children that are not necessarily play but do enrich and extend play. They can read to children, tell stories, listen to them, observe them, answer their questions, create a place to play, find props, tolerate mess, and be OK with risk taking. That would be big.
• More public, free access places where children can direct their play are needed. There are parks and playgrounds, museums, and schoolyards. It’s striking that the list isn’t longer. What about empty lots and alleys, backyards, the courtyards of buildings, school playgrounds after hours?
|Playing with? Together? Along side of?|
• Museums can offer times and places for children to play with supervision but without adults joining in. A museum for children should be able to have a place that is just for children. Could a museum field trip offer extended, play rich experiences instead of a program much like a classroom lesson? What if parents and caregivers accompanying children to the museum or playground could observe, listen, talk with each other, talk on their phones, or take photos? Would that be such a bad idea?
• Museums, libraries, preschools, parks departments, afterschool programs, and schools might consider playwork training that supports playwork principles. Playworkers balance many considerations around children’s play: a space to play, risk, and development in a role that enables children and young people to extend their play, not to play with them.
This is not to say that parents and caregivers can’t lean into children’s play now-and-then and provide guidance to help their child be aware of others’ feelings. Parents and caregivers are present in children’s lives. They know their children and they themselves play. Parents and caregivers will play with children, but it’s not their job and not always a good idea. Museums, parks, playgrounds, schools, along with early childhood educators, and parents have a role in play. Make it easy for children to play with other children. Give them the time and place to play, but don’t write the script.