Sophia and I have fallen into a relaxed routine in the morning. I make breakfast and she plays beside me. It allows me to have subtle input into her play, without actively directing it. I can help her sustain the play activity, adding voices, suggesting ideas, while taking care of some necessary tasks.
I never thought this day would come.
I have long been Sophia’s playmate. I’ve sat through countless (and endless) pretend meals served by the surly waitress at Sophie’s café. I’ve received questionable health care (and been charged outrageous co-pays) by Dr. Sophia at the hospital. I’ve been turned into a cat, a cow, and a car, under the spell of The Great Sophini and her magic wand. Sophia didn’t come up with these activities on her own (though she was always an enthusiastic participant). I taught her how to engage in these possibilities, to inhabit these fantasies, to pretend. And then she ran with it.
One might think that play comes naturally to children. And it absolutely does. Children imitate in play the activities they observe in the world around them. It was no surprise that Sophia’s first attempts at make believe involved talking on a cell phone and food preparation, two things I do on a daily basis, multiple times a day. Play is how children begin to make sense of the world and their place in it.
But there is so much in our society that serves to inhibit play, that squashes and replaces innate play impulses: two of the biggest offenders, I believe, are toys and television.
Here is my beef with modern toys: they have become so sophisticated that they have essentially put children out of a job, rendering imagination obsolete. A kitchen that sizzles, a ball that giggles and rolls on its own, frogs that have several pre-recorded rote responses in English and in Spanish—the very toys that appear to inspire play, in reality, wind up subverting it. They play FOR the children. Kids merely have to push a button to get a response. Parents may notice that these toys are not played with for any length of time. They are picked up, admired momentarily, and discarded. They fill basements, playrooms and garbage dumps. They do nothing to inspire creativity, wonder, and discovery (except perhaps in a few future engineers who disassemble them to see how they work). At best, they are boring. At worst, they’re annoying as hell.
I find TV particularly insidious because, at first glance, it appears that it inspires ideas for play. In reality, television is a thief of imagination. Kids become the characters they see. They act out scenes from their favorite shows. They indulge fantasies of other worlds, other ways of being. But if you listen carefully to this kind of play, you come to realize that the children are working off of scripts. They have no imagination outside of the images they have been fed. They don’t know how to develop a unique character, a novel world. This phenomenon, in turn, feeds the toy industry that produces all the figurines, props, and costumes that allow children to recreate what they’ve observed on TV.
This is not to say that all toys (or even all television) is bad. In fact, many low tech toys that are facsimiles of real objects—or better yet the REAL OBJECTS themselves—are great props for the imagination.
Case in point: Sophia is obsessed with all things medical. Perhaps she’s trying to master her fear of needle shots. Perhaps she is trying to emulate her grandfather, who is a doctor. Or maybe it’s simply inspired by her great love for Curious George, who often finds himself in the hospital with a broken limb or an ingested puzzle piece. Regardless, as medicine is her current interest, I decided to try to find her a doctor’s kit. I quickly became frustrated with the expensive packs of molded plastic I found even in the best toy stores. Nothing looked “real” or remotely worth the money. I decided to look online and found a blog written by a mom who shared my frustration. She said that real stethoscopes and blood pressure machines could be purchased for less than what some toy companies charged for the fake stuff. Turns out, she was right. I quickly assembled a doctor’s kit that consisted of a light pen, a real eye chart, a stethoscope, a blood pressure machine, an old ace bandage, a pin that read Dr. Sophia Moore, a medicine syringe that looked satisfyingly like a needle shot, a child-sized lab coat, and a tendonitis elbow brace—all for under $30. I haven’t brought out all of the pieces yet, but already, the ace bandage is the number one utilized “toy” in our house.
That ace bandage was sitting in my dresser drawer for years. It only became a toy when it was introduced as such.
Play is a life skill; it brings joy into relationships, transforms work into passion, makes life worth living. Those who know how to play have the ability to think and act creatively. They are fun to be around. When I watch Sophia initiate a play activity with a peer, I can see the foundation of leadership skills taking hold.
But like most life skills, play needs to be taught. There is nothing simple about being a teacher of play. It requires a certain lack of self-consciousness and a lot of silliness, a willingness to get down on the ground and become everything you’re not, an ability to transform the everyday into the extraordinary. But of all the responsibilities I have as a parent, it is the one in which I take the greatest pleasure and reap the greatest rewards.