Valentino is soon to be four years old. Looking back, age three had common themes. One of the themes centered on play. For the most part when we would play, I allowed him to direct the activity. He was the happiest when we would sit down on the floor together and start to engage in pretend play. Sometime this involved building with Legos, blocks or magnets, other times being cars or trucks. Many times he would hand me one of his puppets or “lovies” (a stuffed animal.) Games like hide and seek, even when he would hide in the same place time after time, ruled the course of the day often. To be honest with you it did not require much direction from us at all, most times we would just have to follow Tino’s lead. The important thing was just to do it, and to get down on the floor with him let your inhibitions go and play.
It seems rather simple, however; I have come to learn from our many therapists here at Imua Family Services that few adults know how to just play. “What do you mean they don’t know how to play?” I’d ask only to be reminded perhaps some adults didn’t engage in play with their caretakers when they were children themselves. Or perhaps their young minds and imaginations were squelched when they tried to play. They may have had parents who thought that this king of playing and frivolity were nonsense. Or worse yet, many parents today confess that their parents simply placed them in front of TV’s to entertain them and keep them busy, again not teaching them to play or use their own imaginations.
I think back to my own childhood. I was an only child surrounded by adults and my father worked a from early morning till the wee hours of the next morning, seven days a week. I vividly remember he did not have the time to get down on the floor with me and play. I also know as a child my father never had the opportunity to play. As a young boy in China his life was in turmoil and by the age of 10 he left during the exile, and thrust into manhood to fend for himself. I attribute much of his parenting styles to this survival mode that often plagued him.
We did not have a television when I was growing up and it was never in my father’s interest for us to have one. He saw them as a waste of time. Not having a TV forced me to have to use my own imagination to fill the use of my time, it gave me reason to play outside and be active and it made me more creative with the playtime that I had inside the house. I recalled that we had a spare room in our apartment above our restaurant. In this room my father filled it with water color paints, oil paints, egg cartons, boxes, tape, glue, crayons, cotton balls, feathers, scraps from just about anything he could find and not throw away. This room was my room, my room to create anything I wanted. I could glue things to the wall, and I did, I could paint the walls and any objects in the room, and I did. I remember building a puppet stage, which grew into a village for my puppets where they would put on nightly shows. As I grew costumes were added to the room, Christmas lights and music. This room was my own personal outlet for self-expression and creative playtime. Looking back on it now, I realize this was not perfect as it did not engage me with other people, or help further my communication skills but it was what my father could do, and it was pretty good for me.
We do have a television and tino does like to watch animation movies. It takes discipline on our part to limit what that time is. But if given a preference our son would rather engage in playtime with his daddies. There is nothing that can beat that intimate interaction between myself and my child. It allows them the freedom to use their own mind to decide what is next, what shape the blocks take, how to get them to stack on top of each other. When he assigns me the role of a monster, and he wants me to roar you better believe I reply “how high and how loud? We take empty boxes and make forts to crawl in together, turn the lawn furniture upside down and find places to keep bugs. Of course there are plenty of other things I could be doing but there is nothing more important than spending time with my son, and sometimes that time has to be on THEIR TERMS and ON THE FLOOR.
Playtime motivates a child’s ability to speak and communicate, it motivates them to give instruction, learn limits and possibilities, and it expands their imagination and creativity. It develops their sentence structure and use of vocabulary. And the best thing of all is that it is dirt cheap! We play with everything from cardboard and sidewalk chalk to bugs, rocks, sticks and dirt. My son doesn’t care what we are doing and what we are playing with. Communication, physical engagement, eye to eye contact is all elements that can build connection and relationship. I never got to do any of these things with my father, but I am thankful that he used his resources to allow me to have an imagination and be creative with my time. I remember my room and the many variations it took on, I remember the fabulous puppet shows and showcasing my many talents to my stuffed animals. I remember these times fondly.