Parenting advice / Parenting Strategies for Learning

Say “Yes” to Play!

When I was in graduate school I remember reading something that suggested that if you allowed kids to make up their own rules, the ones they generated would often be stricter or more controlling than any rule an adult would propose and enforce. If given the chance to make rules about classroom behaviors, children would ban gum, impose rules against yelling, and demand that others sit in their seats and pay attention to the teacher. Imagine if an adult made up those rules. There would be a classroom revolt, or at least attempts to sneak a stick of gum, make random loud noises and lots of wiggling in seats.

I never really got a chance to try out this suggestion until I had my own kids. One year I coached an AYSO soccer team of six and seven-year-olds and I invited the girls to make up some rules that would help us work together as a team. As the original article suggested, and I am sorry to say that I cannot properly credit who wrote it, the girls came up with very high expectations for good behavior. Arrive on time, follow coach’s directions, bring a snack to each game, don’t hog the ball, run as fast as you can, were just a few of a rather long list. We actually had to whittle the list down to what they considered “most important.” My job as coach was complete. The team now had a set of rules that were “ours” and implemented (with a fair amount of helpful suggestions from yours truly) by the team.

This blog and the Guiding Curiosity approach encourages you to follow your child’s lead in play and exploration. It also tries to help you determine when to step in and nudge your child’s thinking toward a solution, encourage creativity, or at least avoid frustration. There are several ways to follow a child’s lead. One I mention regularly is to simply watch your child’s behavior closely, determining interests and how best to insert yourself to playfully expound on evident curiosity. Observe what fascinates her, how long will she explore on her own. Next, through trial and error and gauging her response, determine when is the right time to ask a question or make a suggestion about a next step?

Following a child’s lead may also simply involve saying “yes” or doing what he asks you to do in play. Follow his rules for once. For some of us, this can be difficult as we consider ourselves as the authority figure and may not want to give up our parental powers (and will miss out on great opportunities for fun and connection). For others, following a child’s rules can feel like a waste of time and incredibly boring. Those child suggested activities may be repetitive or aimless. So, why do what they tell us to?

Think about it. If someone followed your rules, you’d probably feel a little empowered. Being a child usually means doing what adults tell you to. Central to children’s lives are parent generated lists of do’s and don’ts. As a kid, how great would it be to have your own list and see that someone paid attention and actually tried them out? Too often our inclination as parents is to say “no, I am busy,” or “no thanks, I don’t think that will work.” Next time, say “yes” and follow along. At first, your child might take advantage of this new arrangement and be kind of bossy. Let her. She may just be testing your sincerity. She’ll come around and before you know it your play should be cooperative.

Doing what your child asks of you and following her rules also sends messages of acceptance and supportiveness. It shows you are paying attention and hearing what your child is saying. Joining in their play says I am interested in your ideas or I want to be a part of your world. Consider what the alternative statements are. Or, I don’t want to play with you, I don’t like what you like, I can’t make the time to be with you. Yikes, is that the parent you want to be?

Participating in your child’s version of play means that she has to come up with a plan, communicate the plan and ground rules, evaluate that plan and those rules, creating new versions when the old ones don’t seem to be working. These are great exercises in critical thinking and skills that simply cannot be learned and tried when the adult is making all the rules.
Remember that what is suggested here is saying yes to play, not yes to everything the child wants. Also, following your child’s lead does not mean you cannot teasingly challenge a suggestion or action. You can jokingly complain, pretend to be stubborn, or throw your own mini sham tantrum. In doing so you may be playfully suggesting an alternative direction while not undermining the child’s sense of control. This is play after all, so say yes, follow her rules, and have some fun with it.


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