My son’s not school age yet, so he doesn’t have a lot of playmates, except for me. That means I hear “Play with me!” even more than “I’m hungry!” (Which, as you may know, is a lot.) I can’t always say yes, but I say no more than I like — because playing with a kid, especially a little kid, can be painfully boring.
I mean, I can stand crashing Matchbox cars into each other for about three minutes before I feel the strong urge to get up and go make supper, or scrub a toilet, or do literally anything else. And there is a limited number of little Play-Doh worms I can make before I’m just … done.
At the same time, I totally see my son’s point of view: everything’s more interesting when you do it together. So I’ve started saying yes to playing with him more, but only when I can figure out a way that I can enjoy myself too. You’d think that would put a real damper on things, but it doesn’t. We’re playing together a lot more often, now, and I last a lot longer. He can tell that I’m actually engaged, and that’s all he really wanted to begin with.
So if we’re doing art together, I’m not just messing around, I’m trying to draw something I can be proud of. I’m working on my shading, or trying to remember just how an oak leaf is shaped. Even if it’s just crayon, and I know it’s getting thrown out in the morning, when I try to draw something that takes some thought and effort, we both love art time. We may have different skill levels, but we’re both challenging ourselves.
No, I’m not going to play sword fighting, and I have limited patience for “Watch me jump off this chair!” but I can give him something similar — and engage my own mind too — by sending him through a quick obstacle course.
Or instead of making little Lego men interact with each other (what do Legos even have to say to each other, anyway??) I build fantastic Lego robots and spaceships, and he smashes them. That’s fine; I didn’t need them to last forever. I did need something interesting to do, though.
Play is fun for kids because it’s difficult. Kids play in ways that challenge them — they push the limits of their body by seeing how far they can jump, or try to build a tower higher than they built yesterday. The things that challenge me are different, but I’ve noticed that when I can incorporate an element of challenge for myself, we’re both happier. He gets a parent who genuinely wants to play with him, and I don’t spend the whole time wishing I were doing something else.
Normally, I think of playing with a child as if it’s something I do for them, not for me. We adults have so much to do that we forget that we’re still perfectly capable of playing, and even enjoying it, with a little creativity. When I take ownership of my part in the play, then we’re really playing together, and even when we’re not doing what the child initially suggested, it’s always better.
Stop the early reading madness and let kids play