Monday, February 29, 2016

Why are we paying to play?

My three-year-old has never been to any form of organized play beyond the occasional visit to the library two blocks away for story time or music time. It lasts 30 minutes and makes me want to run from the building, but she enjoys shaking the tambourine and throwing the scarves into the air. I think this is sufficient exposure to tattooed women talking about sacred spaces for music. I’ve never felt the urge to pay for this experience. If we didnt have easy and free access to this “class,” I would not be strapping kids in car seats and loading up diapers and snacks to schlep them someplace for the paid privilege of singing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” with hand motions.

But sometimes it seems Im alone in this. Other moms are willing to spend big money for everything from sign language classes for infants, to language immersion for one-year-olds, to dance, tumbling, soccer, and art classes. Heres how we handle that: my eldest pushes a button on a rocking horse that plays music and dances till she falls down, making the baby squeal and laugh. Tumbling happens—Im not sure how to stop it from happening, thats how regularly it happens. We have balls that can be kicked (not encouraged in the house, but winter in Oregon makes that hard). Art happens on my grocery list, calendar, bills, and books every time someone finds a pen or pencil or stub of crayon. Like the tumbling, we cant stop the art from happening.

Toddler “art appreciation” class, done in blue ballpoint.
But parents just “want the best” for their kids. Some have hopes of raising professional athletes. Some rail about socialization. But arent we raising kids that need to be entertained all the time? My toddler doesnt—Im able to wash dishes and do laundry and she just . . . plays, with her brother, with the Tupperware, with her toys. I know, it sounds sad, but she does it, and seems to enjoy it. Shes absorbed in it, laughing, occasionally running up to show me something shes done or introduce me to her newest baby.

I wanted to be a mom for quite a long time. I never wanted to be a taxi driver or an event planner, which feels like a parenting prerequisite in our culture. Nor did I ever feel compelled to spend hundreds of dollars on colorful plastic that would take over the house and storage spaces like a Toys “R” Us fungal infestation. I wanted to teach children, see them pray, hear what they think about things like daffodils and using “wash mouth” when they are “old.” I thought teaching a child how to think, how to worship, how to be a human being with common sense and grace, seemed amazing and awesome enough.

Theres so much effort spent raising miniature capitalist consumers, which are often just a smaller version of their parents. Children grow up anticipating the rewards that come with a season of T-ball or swim class or sign language. But the rewards for the best things in life are mostly internal, delayed, and may only be received in heaven. No one gives me a t-shirt with my name on it and a trophy followed by a cupcake reception after a season of Cold and Flu. Theres no clapping in the stands when Ive disciplined a toddler for the ninth time before 8 a.m. without losing my temper. But mothering has a temporal and eternal effect; its not just another notch on the parents belt, like a child completing a violin solo (and shes only two!).

Let the kids be kids while the parents are being parents, doing parental things, like making dinner and answering questions, even disciplining. Let the children learn to problem solve and find the time to ask questions. They have the school system waiting for them, to schedule their time, to shift them from activity to activity. Why not let them play in the backyard and discover worms and new plants coming out of the earth and listen to the birds, and maybe have a discussion about the plane they see flying overhead? To a child the ordinary is extraordinary. They dont need to have their attention diverted from their discoveries—theres something fascinating in the smallest things for a child.  Its the parents who train them from a young age to want something more, to need the carrot when they really just need some freedom and time.

Picture of ancient playground (1393 B.C.)

Bring back climbing trees, scraped knees, and homemade dinners. And send the check youre about to write for that next level of “experiential play” with “various mediums” at the “learning center” to someone with a real need, someone who doesnt have a place to sleep at night, someone who doesnt know where their next meal is coming from. And when your toddler is bored, let her fold laundry, stir the soup, and dust the table. That will be a nice break from her “unstructured play” and she might even learn something.

Photo Source: By G. Brändle, Agroscope (Agroscope Reckenholz-Tänikon) [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons