“You cannot tell me you’re bored!”

Encouraging True “Free Play”

A few weeks back, I wrote about the importance of true free play…play that is completely child-driven and free from any directions from grown-ups. This is the kind of play that happens when kids are left to create their own fun, and incidentally, this kind of play is more valuable than all the money and time you could possibly spend on Gymboree classes, soccer, T-Ball, ballet, tennis camp, and voice lessons combined. Seriously. This is the kind of play in which kids learn social skills, problem solving and flex both their creative and physical muscles. What’s hard about quality free play is how to encourage it.

How often have you (and I!) had this conversation with our children:

“I’m bored!”

“You cannot be bored. You have a million toys in this house…play with them!”

“But they’re all booooring! I don’t want to play with them! Play with me!!!”

AH! It grates on my very last nerve! (…which after a long, rainy day where I was stuck inside with my two cranky sons, is a small nerve at that!) I know my knee-jerk reaction is to find these kids something to DO so they will be out of my hair. I pull out play-dough. I decide we’ll bake cookies. I (insert gasp, finger shaking and disdainful glare here) put on a movie. Anything to get some peace so I can get done what I need to.

And this is where I go wrong.

We live in a society where there’s a lot of stuff. That’s a post for another day, really, but our kids have it easy…or hard..depending on your position on the matter. The thinking is done for them. Toys talk to them, invite them to press buttons, reward their efforts with lights and sounds and canned applause. The epitome of my own personal exasperation with this matter was the day I discovered you can buy what amounts to a plastic stick, made to look like a real stick, so you can pretend you have a magic wand like Harry Potter. I’m not kidding. What’s wrong with using, I don’t know…an actual stick?

My advice on encouraging free play is not easy advice, and not even advice I can promise to take on a daily basis. Ignore the cries of boredom, and give kids a gentle nudge toward creativity by putting out open-ended things for them to discover. A pile of boxes and a roll of masking tape. Some giant-sized blankets. If it’s warm out, a garden hose and buckets. Shovels, if they’re older kids. You get the idea. Then comes the hardest part…resist the urge to show them or tell them what to do. Be within earshot if they’re young, but stay out of it. Let them argue and negotiate solutions; let them come up with “what to do”.

Now, after a horrible, rainy, cabin-fevery day, I need to take my own advice and start anew. No more Curious George on in the background, hoping it might catch their interest and give me a moment’s peace…and more letting go and stepping back.

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