To some parents, playtime means their kids are off on their own, engaged in some ready-made activity that’s just safe enough not to require supervision. There might be a friend, or group of friends, involved. Maybe the child’s only companion is a tablet or game controller. Maybe the kid has stopped playing altogether and is in the process of dismantling the TV.
For others among us, playtime consists of a trip to the park, where we set our youngster loose while we sit and converse with other disinterested parents or, worse, begin checking emails or texting our co-workers about that fast-approaching project deadline. Sure, we occasionally look up in response to the oft-heard playground tsunami: “Dad, dad, dad, dad, look what I can do, dad, DAD, DAAAAD LOOOOK!! LOOOOOK!!” A half-hearted smile followed by a, “Good job, hon!” is all we can muster. ‘Cause darn it, this deadline is important, and Clyde is going to kill me if I don’t get with Margaret about the PowerPoint blah, blah, freaking blah. Oddly enough, our kids still love us, still crave our attention and approval, still want to be with us. This is not to suggest that alone playtime isn’t good for a child. Left to their own devices, children come up with some pretty wonderful ideas. Their imaginations aren’t yet clouded with those deadlines. Their minds are ready and able to create new universes at a moment’s notice, and they can inhabit those universes for hours on end. Giving them that personal space is imperative, and we should respect that.
This is not to suggest that the “helicopter” parent is to be revered, either. Wanna stunt your child’s intellectual and emotional development? Hover. Wanna ensure your kid resents you for most of their young-adult life? Hover. Want your child to suffer from years of ridicule from children whose parents never put them on a leash? Hover, hover, hover.
We must, of course, strike a balance, giving our children the space they need while cutting out time for interactive play. For me, a lifelong working musician and writer, this means introducing my daughter to the worlds of music and literature through play. I am fortunate. Very fortunate, actually. Since the day I graduated college, save for a few lousy months when I was in career transition in the ‘90s, I have spent my working life doing what I love: writing and performing, sometimes both at once. I have toured the United States and parts of Europe as a drummer. I have won awards writing for the alternative press, and I’ve been published in The New York Times, Modern Drummer and various travel magazines. And I have written several musicals and theater pieces.
Part of this my daughter witnessed from afar, as she was a bit too young to understand what was happening, but in the past few years, from ages 3 to 6, she has been a part of the process. An open-play day for my kid and I might entail heading out to Dad’s backyard studio to record some music. We’ll start with free experimentation, she and I banging, strumming, plucking and singing with abandon. Out of this something comes. Usually something hilarious and wonderful.
I’ll press “record,” and she’ll go for it, sometimes performing two or three songs in a row. She’s her own worst critic, so, at times, she gets frustrated. “It’s not right. I need to do that again.” So we do. No rules. Just fun. And we’re playing together.
When I worked for the newspaper industry, I was often tasked with guiding interns through their semesters, helping them understand the business while ushering them through the process of composing a news or feature story. I would tell them to let go and stop worrying about what they were taught in the hallowed halls of academia. “For the first draft,” I would tell them, co-opting a phrase from (of all things) the Outback Steakhouse advertising campaign, “No rules, just write.”
This is the approach I have to playing with my daughter, whose personality type tends toward “control freak.” She’s genetically predisposed to it, as I am that way, too, a guy who, despite his life-long pursuit of the creative arts, maintains a tight grip on all he possesses. So it’s a great exercise for both of us. Don’t worry about how we are going to play. Just play. Enjoy the moment. Enjoy where it takes you. Open up to the possibility of the ideas we create together. When we do, anything is possible, and it will always be fun.
My wife, a yoga instructor, is much better at this than I am, and when she and my daughter play, it’s always a journey. “Here are some poses, let’s start here and see where it takes us.” Sometimes it’s a safari through all of the wild animal poses. Sometimes it’s a flying-carpet ride through the history of India. Sometimes, we all just crank up some music, and we pose, dance and sing at the tops of our lungs.
That’s when the magic truly happens.
Special Thanks to Nerdywithchildren.com
John E. Citrone is editor at Nerdywithchildren.com as well as a musician, journalist and playwright. As a journalist and editor, he has won multiple alternative press writing awards, and has been published in The New York Times, Modern Drummer and American Way magazines. He is also a part-time educator, hosting workshops and lectures for young writers.
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