When our children were in elementary school, we lived in the heart of a mega-metropolis with little opportunity for outdoor activities and rare glimpses of winter weather. So we took a vacation to the mountains to partake in some of the pleasures of winter.
We packed ski suits, hats, gloves, scarves and goggles and drove for hours. More preparation and waiting ensued as we were fitted for skis and poles, and everyone tried on several pairs of boots to find the right size, then fastened them securely.
Finally we made our way outside. The adults wanted to head straight for the lifts, but our children had to be coaxed and cajoled out of the mounds of snow around the entrance to the lodge. They touched the snow with their bare hands and threw some in the air, stepping into the deep drifts and poking at the white fluffy goodness with their ski poles.
It became increasingly apparent that, although we had poured a lot of money and effort into a fun ski trip, the children really just wanted to play in the snow. As a result, everyone ended up frustrated and unhappy.
We decided to amend our plans and gave the kids the afternoon to play. After a few hours, they were ready to hit the slopes again.
I learned an important lesson that day. My definition of play is different from my children's understanding of — and need for — play. To me, play is a fun activity with a clear goal, often structured and reached by following step-by-step directions. Children, on the other hand, require time to explore, manipulate and experiment on their own so they can make sense of the world around them.
Despite our good intentions, adults inhibit children's play in several ways.
• We schedule play while controlling our children's free time. We fill our children's days with activities from morning to night, including school, classes, organized sports, lessons and crafts. While these activities can be valuable and important, unlike play, they are goal-oriented and may be motivated by a fear of falling behind.
Creative play often results from boredom and idleness. When children have time, resources and tools at their disposal, they surprise us with imaginative ways of keeping themselves occupied and amused. Ready access to paper, pens, crayons, markers, scissors, glue, tape, empty boxes and toys without specific instructions can lead to ingenious play.
• We provide scripts for dramatic play and discourage conflicts. If our children enjoy particular stories and characters, we buy them corresponding costumes and representative toys. We encourage them to re-enact scenes and perform associated songs and dances. We assist them in assigning roles and provide an audience for their performances.
True dramatic play occurs when children negotiate among themselves about the roles they will take on and when they determine what to say or what will happen next in a scene. Play takes time to set up and plan. It develops organically and can rarely be duplicated. It may involve healthy tension and conflict between children as they exchange ideas and opinions.
• We are overly safety-conscious and risk-averse. We discourage children from climbing, trying to do things in new ways and straying too far from the watchful eyes of their caregivers. As children constantly hear words of caution, they become afraid to try new things. If we let go a little, we might see that they are capable and resilient.
Children are hard-wired to play. They are naturally curious and want to explore and act out scenes. To be classified as play, children's activities must be:
• Nonliteral. In imaginative play, I experiment with new possibilities. When I play, I can be a mermaid, I can fly, and this rock can become a beautiful jewel or a tasty treat.
• Intrinsically motivated. When I play, I am doing what I do because I like it. I don't need to know that I am learning something or that I will be stronger or healthier after having done it. I play because I want to.
• Process oriented. I find enjoyment in the planning and organizing of my play. A play scenario may take two hours to set up and prepare for but be completed within two minutes of implementing the plan.
• Freely chosen. I decide what to do, how to do it and when to start and stop. My companions and I set the rules and adapt them to the changes we encounter but rarely anticipate.
• Joyful. I enjoy what I am doing and I like the people I am doing it with.
When we step back and let go, giving our children the freedom to explore and create their own adventures, we give them the gift of play and all the benefits that brings. We also make life easier on ourselves, because it requires less planning and intervention by adults.
Adult-initiated fun activities and child-initiated free play are both valuable and essential to healthy development. I'm glad I learned to recognize the difference between the two, and to plan for both.
Merete Kropp is a child development and family specialist and mother of three. Kropp can be found at familynurturance.com and @nurturance on Twitter and Nurturance on Facebook.