“What are we doing mumma?” I look at my son, excitement dancing in his eyes.
“What next?” he reminds me once again as he happily stands over his recently demolished DIY creation.
I look at the plethora of cardboard, felt and DIY paper cut outs, all strewn in random shapes across the floor. While a regular set of crayons lie unwrapped, with its shaved bits on the floor, random slashes of the color happily declare that they have found their way on to the cupboard’s sliding door instead of the drawing book. So much in the name of activity time! Seriously!
Sometimes, I love to believe that I have everything under control, in terms of his set of activities planned for the days he is at home. However, my son squashes that feeling within an hour of such days! The very first hour post breakfast, goes poof.
I try to give him one activity at a time, believing that it would do justice to that ‘gross motor’ or ‘fine motor’ or ‘cognitive skill’ development, but my son makes sure that he creates a blend of all, resulting in a hodge-podge mix of skill building, learning nothing or maybe a little of everything (I’m a hopeful mother so I would like to believe that).
Anyway, an activity box, which I take every month for the necessary skill development in my child, suddenly looks like a joke as after five-ten minutes of some prodding and probing, the activity resources lie broken, torn or worse, demolished along with the box! I wonder how people claim that children spend hours doing it. Sometimes, my kid’s attention span and focus makes me doubt on my ability too!
‘Maybe he doesn’t like it!” I try to pacify myself in my mind, while I clean up the rummage yard in my toddler’s bedroom!
To console myself, I hand him play dough, but they soon get diluted into water and turn into a sea of wonderful liquid colors!
Maybe some building blocks, but he goes on to demolish his blocks creation with his “Zoom zoom, pirate coming!” dialogue in no less than five minutes.
Do hell with activities!
Like a good parent, I tried to teach him about household chores too. I wonder why I thought of such a novel idea because no sooner did I give him the task of putting the laundry in washing machine, I figured the bucket and mug too went into the machine, with half of the clothes and detergent powder lying on the floor.
Only two months back, after one of my attempts of keeping him busy went bust, I decided to just let things be. I finally decided to let him do whatever because my planning and pre-planning were all going up in flames.
It wasn’t easy initially as he kept hovering around me, pleading me to take him out to every friend of his, but I, having mastered the art of coming up with excuses, sailed through. I pretended to ignore his ‘I’m bored mumma’ statements for some time and gradually diverted him to play on his own.
A good two hours of free play, without much disturbance was a relief and a pleasant surprise! There were no planned activities from my side, yet my kid surprised me with some constructive and sometimes, some amount of destructive, yet focused play!
While he happily made a car garage out of his activity boxes, driving in and out his cars, he also on the other hand, got his toy figurines into action, mouthing dialogues for them! The more and more I paid attention, I observed that he was able to direct and re-direct his playtime in a more meaningful way! And while I thought that he was doing “nothing”, he was doing a lot more!
That was a big revelation and a wise lesson learnt indeed. Unstructured or free play does bring out true creativity in children. It’s not what some people call “nothing”, its more than that!
Even with small babies, we as parents, often tend to overload the baby with the newest and the choicest of toys in store, aiming to help the child achieve that ‘cognitive’ or ‘hand-eye-co-ordination’ or ‘motor skills’. No matter how much we buy and try, we always later feel, the child doesn’t get it. However, what we fail to understand is the fact that children have short attention span. Even if a new toy holds his attention for some time, it won’t do much after 5-10 minutes! And he or she is likely to move onto something else.
Free play refers to giving your child the things that aim to serve the same purpose as some toys, barring the huge price tag. For instance, instead of buying nesting cups, give him a set of tubs or cans of ascending or descending size to help him put them into each other or form a tower or simply knock them down. At this stage, more than anything else, they are happy with a varieties of things they can do with an object, sans price.
For a child, it’s interesting and fun to poke, roll, bang, throw and even smash/squish things and so, he will continue doing so unless threatened by a parent/ a caregiver. So do not indulge in any form of punishment, that’s a child’s way of staying inquisitive and exploring his world around. He is trying to learn the cause and effect relationship by doing certain actions with items. For instance, he’s grasping gravitational pull by throwing things again and again, to check if everything thrown down, lands on the floor!
He/she is checking on the textures of various foods or things by biting, mouthing, squishing, banging and even smashing with his fingers. My kid, to my horror, had once eaten up a big blob of blue play dough, to only pacify me later that it did not taste great!
He like other kids understood the concrete ways of life through certain actions. For instance, he understood that biscuits, when crushed forcibly powdered, bread turned soggy in mouth, rubber tastes leathery, porridge is sticky and gooey and water and sunshine cannot be held in fists! And all these pearls of wisdom were acquired through routine, unstructured free play!
Also to elaborate, free play is not putting the child in front of the TV or Tablet. My concept of free play is not gadget time because there is no play initiated by the child there. Free or unstructured play is all about a child initiating the playtime, it’s impromptu and initiated by the child’s imagination alone.
Free play has worked wonders for me and my kid and so now, I try to give both structured and unstructured play time to him so that he is able to enjoy his day. The best part is I’m no more running behind him, planning and doing activities. He has learnt to soothe and occupy himself by inventing unique and creative games. Now I know he can independently invent a game, pretend play, or do any imaginative play to keep himself busy.
As a mother, my kid’s free play time has also helped me gain perspective of a lot of things. Free play is not just doing “nothing”, it’s building creativity and imagination in a child, along with decision making skills. My kid is now independently making the choices, carrying out ideas while playing alone, deciding how to execute the play as well. Also, it has helped me discover my kid’s interests and skills.
With play dates, with two kids of the same age group, the free play, does a lot more than that. Play dates help the children to learn, and cope up their differences, thereby making them emotionally and socially stable and co-operative! However, supervision is required with toddlers, who have very little sense of safety and security.
A free balanced approach of incorporating both structured and unstructured play is what I believe will bring out the best in a child! At least, that’s what I see now and can vouch in with guaranteed success! Till that time, sticking to this art of doing “nothing” by your child should be encouraged and appreciated. Trust me, it will do more good to you and your child than that expensive toy, which you have been mentally preparing to buy.
Expose your child to textures, reflections in mirrors, shadows, movements, variety of colors, lights, sounds etc. While you may dislike the idea, but trust me, these are teaching him ways in which life works! Also, he will learn to stay happy on his own, by staying fascinated with anything and everything around him. He will always successfully find ways to occupy himself and stay attentive and happy in life. Hence, allow a lot of free play, with a lot of freedom to help your little explorer satiate his inquisitiveness, while steering clear from harm. This will help him fetch answers to his own problems and questions. It will keep him stay interested, curious and above all happy in his life.