“Mama, will you play on the train with me?” my daughter asked, lining up the dining chairs to form a line of seats.
“Sure! Where’s my seat on the train?” I responded, looking forward to some good, old-fashioned pretend play together. This is what childhood is supposed to be all about, right?
“You can sit riiiight here!” she responded, “Just give me your ticket first!” I found a scrap of paper and folded it into a makeshift ticket. “Here you go!”
We enjoyed a couple more minutes of happily playing before things started to head south.
“All abooooooard!” I announced, getting into the game.
“NOOOOOO! I’M supposed to say that.”
I got up from the train.
“NOOOOOO! The train is still moving!”
I got back on board and gave her another ticket.
“NOOOOOO! You already GAVE me a ticket.”
This wasn’t exactly what I had in mind for us playing together. It probably wasn’t what my daughter had in mind either. I wanted to me the type of mom who enjoyed playing with her kids. Who had fun with them. Why weren’t we having fun? Was I not cut out for this?
Then I came across a thought-provoking article by developmental psychologist Peter Gray. He points out that playing serves an important purpose for children. They learn through play. Pretend play gives them a chance to try on adult roles like preparing food, driving or using public transportation, doing yard work, or taking care of babies. As adults, we already have these skills, so pretend play often bores us.
Whew. It wasn’t just me who hated pretend play. But how should I spend time with my kids if not for playing? Isn’t playing together an important part of bonding and having quality time together?
The article goes on to explain that the definition of “play” is having fun. Playing should be a joy, not a duty. In other words, if you’re not enjoying yourself, you aren’t really playing. The key to having fun playing together is to find a mutually enjoyable activity. I realized the reason we weren’t having fun together is that I wasn’t having fun. Simple, but life changing.
After letting that idea sink in, I gave myself permission to quit pretend play. I no longer pretend to play with my kids while secretly feeling bored out of my mind. Instead, I try to fill our time together with things I enjoy that I can include them in. Nature walks, bike rides, swimming, trips to the library, digging in the dirt, painting, reading books, building Lego creations, making smoothies, playing board games, baking together, looking at stars. Enjoying life’s simple pleasures.
So what can we do when our children ask us play with them? First, it’s helpful to remember that asking us to play is a plea for connection. They want to hang out with us. They want to involve us in their worlds. They need us. We can often meet that need by finding another way to connect. Hold them tight for a full minute. Turn on some music and dance. Chase them around the living room and roughhouse. Have fun together in a way that’s fun for you to. That’s where true connection comes from. If our hearts are not in it, it usually shows.
Have I given up pretend play completely? No. Sometimes I still engage in the occasional pretend scenario when my daughter asks. But now that I’ve taken the pressure off myself, I’m able to do it from a place of joy, rather than obligation.
We’d love to hear your ideas for playing with kids. What activities do you find mutually enjoyable?