If you were to spend any significant amount of time at my house, it’s a pretty safe bet that you’d hear me encourage my kids to go play independently. I won’t lie: sometimes I crave the quiet moments. But I don’t encourage independent play for me. I encourage it because I firmly believe that it’s critical to their development into the happy, healthy humans I want them to be.
This idea did not come to me intuitively (and it took me a minute to live into it). I bet it seems foreign to many of my peers as well. We became adults in the age of social media, where the constant flow of information we see includes a steady stream of terrifying crimes that we must protect our families against at all costs. And if the content in our feeds isn’t nightmare fuel, there’s a good chance it’s a beautiful craft shared on Pinterest, that tempts even those of us with the highest self-esteem to wonder if we’re doing it wrong when we aren’t structuring our kids’ days full of Instagram-worthy educational opportunities (guilty!).
Whether it’s the fear factor or the like factor, it’s pretty easy to fall into the trap that we, as their parents, have to stay super involved in all aspects of our kids’ play. But human children survived for millennia without the level of parental involvement that we see today.
I read a couple blogs, explored a well-written book, and listened to a couple TED Talks on this subject, and while they were all excellent, none of them on their own sold me on the idea that my kids need unstructured play time. If you’ve read any of my other posts, you won’t be surprised to hear me say that it was the garden that convinced me (stick around — the garden is the inspiration for almost everything I write about here).
I can look back on my twenties now and see clearly that somewhere between my teenage years and 29, I completely lost my ability to play. I enjoy my career and am thankful that most days it doesn’t feel like “work,” but to truly call it play would be a bit of a stretch. It wasn’t until I decided to plant a garden that I rediscovered play in my own life.
Nobody told me to start gardening. Nobody told me how I should lay out the plants, what vegetables would do well in my climate, or directed me to use any of their tried and true methodologies. I just bought some supplies, tilled up my yard, and got started with the things that inspired me in the moment.
Don’t get me wrong: I learned a ton along the way and I’m still learning every single day. But only because I wanted and actively sought out more information. I was attracted to Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle because I was fascinated by the concept of eating only locally grown foods for an entire year. A friend sent me Trowel & Error because she could sense that I was interested in the pursuit of growing vegetables organically and sustainably. I spent countless winter hours drawing plans and maps of this year’s garden, not because I had to, but because I couldn’t wait for the growing season to begin.
Here’s the thing though: play isn’t all fun and games. I also spent hours in the garden last summer (I’m talking full, ten-hour days in the heat) pulling up weeds and tending to the plants. I learned from the mistakes I made (for example: if you water your plants too often, their roots won’t grow as deep and they’ll become dependent on your constant watering; you can’t throw weeds in your compost pile; and, you probably shouldn’t plant spinach and lettuce right before the heat of summer). Nobody had to teach me (although, I have plenty of friends who are much more experienced gardeners than I who surely could have taken me through it step-by-step and who did give me advice along the way), because my experiences taught me in a way that I’m not likely to forget.
That’s what I want play to be like for my kids. Don’t get me wrong: I want to enjoy the little big moments, like watching them find the courage to climb the tree in the front yard for the first time or having them get embarrassed by my rendition of Fifty Nifty United States. But mostly, I want them to play at and explore whatever it is that interests them when they wake up in the morning. I want them to practice navigating complex social situations without my unsolicited advice and guidance. I want fires to burn inside of them until they naturally go out.
Because that’s not just what I want for them. It’s what I want for myself as well.