I had the fortune to wander through a forest-nestled playground with a group of young children a few weeks ago. It was the beginning of Autumn here in Vancouver. The leaves were turning golden yellow and burnt orange, falling large and small from soaring maples.
The idea was to take the kids to one of the most imaginative outdoor playgrounds in the city. Full of colorful slides, swings, bongo drums, climbing apparatuses, bouncy and spinny things, the playground did not fail to delight their curious eyes, exploring hands and climbing feet.
After a while I suggested we change things up. There was another playground about a 10-minute (or 30-minute for little legs) walk away. I thought it would be nice to stroll along the winding ocean-side trail, take in the trees, birds, creeks and smell of brine. This trail would lead us to our next destination.
Along the way we reached a clearing. There, an abundance of leaves graced our eyes, floating down like snowflakes, covering the grass and dirt in a multitude of colors. An idea popped in my head: “Hey! Let’s see if we can catch the falling leaves!”
Kids LOVE “Hey let’s!”
There was an immediate bounce and skip in their step, a wide-eyed eagerness to capture one of these falling friends in their little hands. They ran around laughing, tripping, falling, getting back up, reaching, standing on a bench thinking, somehow, it would give them an advantage. I stood on the bench as well, dropping leaves into the hands of those who needed a bit more help.
We all laughed and shared in the pure joy of it all. No one cared if a leaf was caught or not. It was about the joy and connection.
When the day was over I asked them, “What was your favorite part of the day?” To my surprise, and not to my surprise, it was the “Catching Leaves Game”.
Remembering to BE playful
“Every day, in a 100 small ways, our children ask, ‘Do you hear me? Do you see me? Do I matter?’ Their behavior often reflects our response.” ~ L.R. Knost
There is great emphasis on doing things for kids—buying and laying out toys, preparing structured activities, taking them to piano lessons, ensuring the money is available for all these things to happen. These actions are, of course, of value and often necessary. After all, without organizing and planning, I would not have taken the kids to the park. There is, however, in our frenetic need to do for, a way in which we easily lose ourselves in busyness and providing shiny toys and separate from what matters most—our kids and ourselves.
I had the honour of presenting at an Aboriginal Infant Development Conference a few years back, and the elder keynote speaker said something I never forgot. “On average, a mother connects with her child only three minutes a day. For fathers, it’s only 30 seconds.” He was not speaking about only indigenous communities, but all communities in the West.
These numbers may seem hard to believe, but when I look back at my own childhood, my well-intentioned, hardworking parents were almost completely focused on what needed to get done—packing lunch, doing homework, tying shoelaces, cleaning my bedroom, doing the dishes, rushing to soccer practice, paying the bills, heading to work. Their attention and actions prioritized responsibilities. Very little time was spent unstructured, slowed down, curious, connected—simply and joyfully being with.
In many tribal societies in Africa this would be considered abhorrent. Infants are bundled up and carried in a sling throughout the day tight to their parent’s chest, as fields are tended, food is gathered and meals are prepared. In some communities, for the first few years of the child’s life, mothers carry their infant sixty percent of the time, while with fathers it’s forty percent of the time. More so, children share the same bed with their parents. There is a clear commitment to bonding with the child, ensuring s/he feels the parent’s heartbeat, warmth and love throughout the day. A secure attachment develops which aids the child to grow up resourced and with the capacity to have healthy, secure relationships with others.
This connection is not only with parents, but elders as well. Children form deep bonds with grandparents who, very often, live with the family. Elders are instrumental in mentoring their grand kids, and other kids, in tending to their spirits and nurturing inner wisdom. Indeed, the extended family and community as a whole play an active role in raising children. Children of all ages interact with one another and explore together, the older ones often helping the younger ones along.
In the West, busyness and the idealization of self-sufficiency are largely to blame for our family and community disconnect: Dual income households, hectic schedules, the habitual use of technology to soothe kids, the lure of organized sports as afterschool care, the overwhelm of homework keeping kids sedentary, all play a part. There is also the growing disconnection from nature, our neighbors and extended family that adds to our isolation and stress.
We know the reasons why we struggle to be present, engaged—playful—with children because we live them all the time. Except we forget one, one reason that’s core.
For most adults, it is easier to organize a playful activity than participate in it. It’s easier to build the sandbox than jump in and play. Yes, we are tired and overstretched, but it’s more than that. Being playful is far more vulnerable than arranging playful experiences. It’s safer to do and be responsible for than be with—present, engaged, playful!
It’s easier to control the parameters of play than lose ourselves—lose control—in play.
In simply organizing play we get to stand back and observe, or even disappear, maybe on our smartphone, or altogether. There’s safety and comfort in that, in hiding behind our plans and logical-logistical mind and Facebook feed. We’ve done the work, we believe; we’ve built the sandbox and brought our kids to the park. Isn’t that where our role ends?
Actually, no. What’s missing, and much needed, is us getting on our knees, getting messy, and being imaginative and spontaneous with our child; being silly, carefree, letting loose—being childlike. Being the things we wished our parents had been with us.
We know this is difficult because being a child wasn’t easy for most of us. Many of us, and at a young age, were expected to act like little adults, sit still, be responsible, organized, smart, disciplined, clean, reserved, contained, unexpressive, domesticated. Sound familiar?
We weren’t allowed to be our wild, uninhibited self.
And so we became good at doing, and that includes doing for others, keeping busy, getting good grades, meeting the expectations of others, getting it “right”. We lost our capacity to feel, wonder, imagine, connect, dream, all things that cannot be measured, cannot be done “right”. We lost our capacity to experience those unquantifiable states of being that, as we grew older, lost value in the eyes of others.
You can measure doing and having, but not being. And so it is no wonder we find greater comfort in doing for than being with. We love the concrete, the perceived security of the tangible. It’s why product is so often preferred over process in early learning. It’s why we rush and ready children in developmentally inappropriate, academic, outcome-based curriculum. Indeed, from an early age, we grow to live a measured life but lose touch with that which reason can’t fathom.
Less is more
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” ~Maya Angelou
Recreation centers in rural parts of Canada are struggling to get funding. They are upset about not being able to buy the equipment / toys and have the facilities needed for kids to have playful experiences. What they don’t see, however, is that their limits present an opportunity to remember what really matters. In being forced to have less, they are given a chance to give what children most long for—the more on the other side of less.
A mother told me how for weeks she diligently planned her son’s fourth birthday in detail. All the bells and whistles were considered and included. Balloons, glitter, crafts, super hero masks, themed plates, swimming pool with slide, music, coloring tables and books, and, of course, ample finely wrapped presents. A bustle of family and friends tended to the food, and specifically, the large, creamy cake!
But amongst the frenzy, mom could not find her son. After searching the house high and low she finally found him quietly and contently in the corner, playing with an empty cardboard box.
She told me this story at one of my Remembering to Play playshops as a reminder to herself that play and lasting, positive memories, arise more from the little things.
The average Western child has over 150 toys, and receives an additional 70 per year. What’s a child to do with all that plastic? What are we teaching them about what’s valuable, what matters? How much are we, as caregivers, allowing toys, including technology, to be a substitute for the necessary secure attachment they biologically need for healthy development? How much are we teaching kids that things are more important than people?
How much are we hiding behind busyness and gadgets and equipment?
In doing mode, we’ve learned to clutter our lives; this includes schedules, classrooms, recreation centers and homes. We’ve learned to hide behind doing.
It comes back to vulnerability, and specifically the vulnerability of being playful. We struggle to rest in our playful spirit because it wasn’t safe to as a child. We therefore have a hard time resting in general— resting in connection with children and ourselves. Our over-engaged sympathetic nervous system and discursive mind keeps us on the lookout for how to next fill our lives, and the lives of children; meanwhile, it’s the hearts of our precious little ones that are longing to be filled with our love and care.
Less is indeed much more.
Therefore, please remember: It’s YOU children ultimately want—your spirit, your imagination, your adventure, your spontaneity, your “Hey let’s!”, your playfulness, your cuddles, kisses and curious ear, your unbounded love. It’s YOU playing with them in simple moments of joy and connection they long for most!
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Check out Vince’s book: Let the Fire Burn ~ Nurturing the Creative Spirit of Children, A Children’s Book for Adults