Two months ago I was invited to be a piece of the 28 Days of Play project hosted by You Plus Two Parenting. Rachel Cedar, founder of You Plus Two Parenting, assembled talented and notable bloggers, published writers, parents, thinkers and seekers and asked an important question: “Do you play with your children?” In the age of constant motion, digital distraction, and overflowing schedules, something has happened to good old fashion play and we all try to understand why.
I believed in this project the moment I felt the honesty. Parenting is hard stuff and being hands-on is tough when hands are full. In the nine years I’ve been a parent, I’ve always navigated to the pals who tell it like it is and speak from the heart of what matters.
I honored to have joined an esteemed panel of writers from all over the country who have children of all ages to investigate why play feels hard, what we sometimes don’t like it and/or avoid and how we think it affects our children when we don’t play with them. This entire month of February You Plus Two will be featuring thought-provoking, candid, vulnerable perspectives on this challenging topic.
My post titled “Play, Like Rising to the Surface for Air” is about being creative in our everyday while remaining true to who we are. For our family, being an individual while making the most of our moments reigns supreme. Maybe I haven’t played Chutes and Ladders in a while, but the other day we circumnavigated the grocery’s parking lot in a spaceship (shopping cart) because it was sunny and awesome and I knew those minutes would count for giggles in gold.
The full essay origonally appeared on 28 Days of Play: click here to view.
Play, Like Rising to the Surface for Air
I’ve never pieced an afternoon away working on puzzles, I’ve never made play dough in a kitchen blaring Raffi from the living room speakers and I’ve never lost track of time in a game of Hide-and-Seek. I have, however, held a pajama dance party to mildly inappropriate 1990s hip hop tunes, created a recyclables mini village with marshmallow Peeps and trespassed for a stuffed kangaroo wedding in a mansion’s remains on private property.
I play by example. I want to be seen by my three daughters as an honest and creative person who’s not afraid to walk the plank as a sea witch or speak up to say, I’m sorry. I don’t feel like pretending that I’m a kitten for the twelfth day in a row. I play spontaneously because if I promise a Barbie date, the routines of our life might creep in and make it otherwise. The words I promise cross my heart as they leave my lips, so I use them sparingly. Nothing breaks my heart faster than hearing a daughter say, But Mama, you promised!
Last Saturday, my youngest daughter Olive spent all morning getting ready for a birthday tea party. It was her first island invite in weeks and she’d turned down a second helping of her favorite pancakes to work on her hand drawn card. The invite called for princess attire and I didn’t tap top eyelashes to my cheek when she appeared in big sister’s red shiny zebra print dance costume of long ago. Wow, Olive, you look like such a modern and beautiful princess, my husband said. Thanks, Daddy. I know. I’m a princess that likes to have fun, said Olive.
Lately late all the time, Olive was impressed we’d arrived early. Upon further entrance, we learned the party was the very next day. In truth, I’m not sure who was more disappointed in that moment. I’d planned an errand and a quick solo date to write with beach views over my dashboard. Olive had wanted tea with her preschool pals and time to show off her baby doll she’d strapped to herself in a sling. Suddenly, the afternoon changed. I felt urged to go meet up with her sisters, to give my husband time to check off his to-do list items. I felt the rush of responsibility creeping into our time carved out for play.
On the walk to the car Olive asked, I wonder what it’s like to be a chicken on this farm? Immediately, I reached to take off her coat I said, Well, why don’t you find out?
Olive happily flapped her wings and tried on a chicken role.
I clipped her car seat and turned the radio on. Mama, I don’t want to live on a farm and eat corn in a coup. I want to eat chicken, said Olive. I looked into the rearview mirror to see Olive whispering to her baby doll. They’d had such a fun party day planned together and I got the date wrong. Sometimes, balance is a fine line that falls and I had just dropped it and felt angry.
These days, everything can change so quickly. If I’m not careful, our spare moments fill. The spontaneous moments, the in-betweens, the decisions I make on a whim can make a day. As I turned left onto the gravel road I thought about how it’s the details remembered when my daughter’s heads hit the pillow that count, even if those details string on minutes instead of hours.
Hey, Olive. Want to go on a ride? I said. We drove to the only public elevator on our tiny island town. We rode so many times I lost count.
It’s easy for me to solve my own problems and sort out dilemmas when I step away from routine, spend a night with pals in a mainland city much like my daughters might pretend a stuffed baby sea otter is left out from a recess game and needs to find the words to deal with the situation. The give and take in our lives, the balance in play comes in the act of rising to the surface for air from time to time and admitting the need for a reset button just as much as it comes from entering the act honestly and with a whole heart. That afternoon, the endless elevator ride was our reset button.
It’s important for my girls to know when to hold up the Miss a Turn card. I know when I’ve had enough, when to withdraw and breathe deep with a sip of coffee and a few knitting rows on the needle. By example, my daughters tell one another they don’t want to play doll hospital anymore or that they, simply, need a reset.
Play becomes more necessary as life becomes more serious. Before sunrise, I like to pretend I’m an athlete with the best playlist imaginable as I run. In this place on pavement, I’m the only one awake, the only runner on the island. It’s what gets me to the end of my loop, the in-the-moment performance when what’s actually happening is a bit better than it seems, where the uphills are pretend-televised and I make it to the end.
When Olive first came home from the hospital, my middle daughter Lucy was not impressed. Lucy wanted little part in helping to care for her newest and youngest sister. Immediately, she began to play the same game and continued for almost two years until Olive was able to join: Baby out in the Snow. According to Lucy, there’s a girl and she hears crying through the door. The girl opens the door and looks for a long, long while until she finds a cold baby in a basket.
Next, the girl brings the baby inside and warms the baby up by the fire and the very next morning the girl plays with the baby, feeds the baby and, well, it repeats. Lucy’s play resembled the relationships within our family. Often, the girl would forget to feed the baby then the oldest sister would come in to say that the baby had been by the fire too long and now had a very bad temperature and was too hungry. Olive’s two older sisters had to navigate their new roles as big ones and divide responsibilities. This play was important stuff and I was never asked to join the game. I watched and knit alongside. I could have said it sounded scary to pretend a baby was lost in the snow or had starved by the fire. But, Lucy needed the confidence within play and the silly giggles in caring for an almost frozen and abandoned baby.
Perhaps I am not meant to interpret the play of my children. Like dreams, play comes intermittently. Some days it’s more vivid than others. And then there are the days when I’m just lucky I got to blink my eyes at all and can’t wait to close them before a new one.