We all know that play is important. And yet, increasingly -- and with the best of intentions -- we schedule our children in structured, mostly adult-led activities. We live in a culture that suggests this is the best way for our kids to learn. Because if our kids aren't in music/athletics/coding, what are they doing (or learning)?
We give up play because of anxiety, but the loss of play actually perpetuates anxiety. We have kids who are so high strung — the super high achievers, some of them crashing and burning...Play is necessary for emotional well being. (2008 interview with Lawrence Cohn, PhD )
Our culture often creates a false dichotomy between play and learning. That is, if you're playing it's just for fun and this is in opposition to actual learning. Thanks to research in psychology, education and neuroscience, we know that children learn through play. Among many other benefits, "Children who play more have better social skills, demonstrated better self-regulation, and are more creative thinkers (Weisberg et al., 2015).
Play is educational. There are different kinds of play and it's important to understand them so we can find a good balance for our families. We intuitively know what free play is -- child-directed, child-initiated -- a child deciding what and how (example: playing independently with legos). This is important for development. But so too is playing with our kids. Yet without realizing it, when parents get involved in play they often "co-opt", meaning they take over and don't allow a child to explore freely.
So you’ll see parents playing with toddlers and the toddler is having a perfectly good time stacking blocks or pouring water or the kinds of things they do, which is exactly what they need to be doing, and the parent is saying “which one is the blue block, which one is the red block, how many blocks are there,” and there’s an intensity to it as though they have to stuff information into their child’s brain every moment they’re with them. (Cohen 2008)
Some Kinds of Play are Better than Others
So how else to play? Well, there is a kind of play called "guided play". It's adult-structured and child-led. Guided play strikes a balance between structure and freedom. Just like improv! An example is a museum exhibit that offers interactive and self-paced activities. Or at home it might be asking open-ended questions while joining a child in her world: "What do you think would happen if Mr. Googly...?" The key here is that while the adult might structure the environment or some of the general rules, the child maintains control of the direction of play and the adult is respectful of the child's choices (Weisberg et all, 2015).
Improv techniques can be used to engage with our children in guided play. Improv is all about a balance between rules and exploration, structure and spontaneity. We can help set up the physical, emotional, and mental environment and then we can let our children take the lead. In this way improv strengthens our connection with our children as we learn and grow together.
What to do with Big Emotions
Once we've developed the foundation of guided play we've created a template for when things seem to go awry -- tantrums, big emotions, resistance. Our relationship is already more resilient due to the trust and authenticity we've shared. But also, we've established some general patterns by which we interact (i.e. I'm in charge of some things, and you get to decide some of these other things). When wrenches are thrown into the mix (I don't WANT to!), we're more attuned to the moment and aware of our thoughts, emotions and choices. We are better able to identify what is happening and make wise choices for how we want to handle it. Even when the whining is like a theme song in your house.
For example, Mr. Googly makes food and then throws it at you. In this instance Mr. Googly (ahem, your child) is testing a boundary -- and as the adult it is your job to establish (and re-establish, again and again...and again!) your boundaries. Of course it's okay to just say no. But what would happen if you stay in Mr. Googly's world and establish a boundary there? What if you have Mr. Scraggly say something like, I don't like it when you throw food at me! I don't want to play anymore...I'm going to go over here until you're ready to not throw things at me. This has a special kind of power. You are still in your child's world playing by her rules, but you are also making your rules clear. No yelling, no anger, just clarity and boundaries.
Play Isn't - Shouldn't - Be Constant
You may be wondering how often to play with your child. The very expectation that parents play with their children is specific to Western cultures. Many (though certainly not all) of us in the United States have the luxury of free time, and we strive to make thoughtful (educational, developmentally-appropriate) choices about how our children spend their time. If our children aren't actively engaged in a stimulating activity, particularly in the early years, we feel pressure to engage with them. This is the essence of modern parenting.
The shadow side of such a proactive (over-involved?) approach to parenting is that we subsume our own needs and possibly overdo the parenting thing. As Psychology Professor Peter Gray points out, playing is not play unless you and your child are both having fun. He suggests that we only play if we are truly enjoying it, and that means taking breaks and establishing boundaries:
The ability to express displeasure, to rebel, to quit, is what makes play such a powerful vehicle for social learning (for more on that, see here). When we allow children to dominate us in play, to be inattentive to our needs and desires, we destroy play’s social value. We are not doing our children a favor by “playing” with them in this way. We may, in fact, be turning them into spoiled brats. (2014)
Gray suggests that we neither dominate play nor let ourselves by dominated. And he argues that we need to let kids have more time for free play - alone and with other children. That means that adult-child plays is part of the picture, but certainly not all of it. This provides us a context within which we can think about guided play or improv parenting with our children as one part of a much larger whole. It is our job to find those special opportunities to deeply engage and truly be in the moment. And it is our job to disengage and encourage our kids to flex their playing muscles with other people and in plenty of other ways.