Playtime Utopia

It’s taken me quite some time to get the train track ready. The figure of 8 and suspension bridge are engineering masterpieces; even the play figures waiting at the station look impressed! The creativity corner is oozing with options – fresh paper on the easel, paint dabbers standing to attention next to the biodegradable glitter. Eco friendly bricks and blocks tumble from a jute bag in an attractive cascade, locally grown organic play food fills the play kitchen. Teddies are snuggled around imagination-inspiring, positive-image-promoting books eager to listen. Construction Barbie waits by the Lego with her blueprints and Action Man Dan stocks the changing bag.

Knocking this parenting thing out of the park – get me some Pinterest praise!!

Then they arrive – the children…

He runs excitedly through the train track, knocking over the bridge, scattering the track like an ungainly Godzilla – the play figures run for cover. She spends 2 minutes putting every paint dabber on top of the other to make a sludgey brown mess. He eats the glitter. She throws the toys and makes a path out of the books while he cooks the bricks. Within the space of 10 minutes my playtime Utopia is decimated and I am devastated.

Because they are normal kids and they want to play, they want to come up with their own ideas. They might need a little help and some suggestions – but they need some freedom. I sat depressed with a cup of tea, ignoring the same children as they happily built an obstacle course with plant pots and sticks in the garden and reflected that maybe there were some other good things I could give them …

1) The Gift of Boredom We are quick to fill a day with plans and entertainment as it makes our life easier – but only in the short term. In the long term, are we really making a monster? Developing a child who looks to others or technology to provide a permanent stream of high level entertainment? A bit of boredom will force their grey matter to work for itself and use their imagination to tell themselves a story, create a game, spot shapes in clouds. So maybe don’t fix it. As my Mum used to say to me “only boring people get bored.”

2) The Gift of Space Everything is better outdoors – from just eating your cornflakes to having space to run to being under a big sky. Grouchy children stuck indoors surrounded by lots of toys can be transformed by just getting out. Take 1 ball, a few cars or a bear on a walk to a park, a field, the woods and suddenly less things are more entertaining. There’s trees, walls, benches, slides for all these things to slide and bounce along. There’s puddles and birds and leaves to pick up, there’s banks to roll down, and wind to blow your hair and grass to tickle your knees and space to run. Get your kids outdoors – even if it’s raining (it isn’t poison dropping from the sky!) Get a coat on and go for it.

3) The Gift of Adventure So often we make all the plans – and that’s half of the fun. Get them in on the adventure. Look at a map and ask “Where haven’t we been near us?” What would be a fun way to get there? What mode of transport could we use – bus, bike, train, scooter? One of my children’s highlights of a day out we went on was the park and ride bus to get there. What provisions should we plan and pack? What would be fun to take for lunch? What should we do when we get there? Answering these questions is a life skill. Suddenly, an ordinary day out becomes an exciting adventure.

4) The Gift of Time We want our kids to play because we have stuff we need to do. This has to happen to some extent so life can work and people can wash and eat. But sometimes, your kids actually want more than anything else just to play with you! Switch everything off, ignore everything else and give them a whole hour. Set a timer and let them choose what game you are going to play and throw yourself into it – whether it is dressing up, building, board games, Lego, hairdressers… Go all out – make the best den, remodel the kitchen into a salon with signs and a price list, build the highest Lego tower you ever have, make a carboard box into a boat. This is memory-making gold.

5) The Gift of Laughter As parents we are the ones trying to keep things under control – and rightly so. But sometimes I can take it too far. I am the permanent policewoman keeping a lid on things, the dampener on their exuberant parades. It’s alright to have a laugh and be silly too. Surprise them! Tell a silly joke, join them as they run round the garden, bounce on the trampoline, start a water fight, do the biggest bomb into the river, giggle with your kids, wait to drop a water bomb out of the window on Dad’s head as he comes home from work. Lighten up and have a laugh, they aren’t little for long!

“Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward” – so let’s enjoy the good, expect the bad and love one another this summer. Let’s worry less about playtime utopia, and think more about the days that are passing, the characters we are building and the priorities we are setting, knowing that perfection will not be found until we arrive in the new creation.

Amy Smith