Friday, July 12, 2013

Why do we make playing so hard?

As TM and I were driving (and driving and driving) back from an appointment earlier this week I caught something on the radio which I've been stewing about ever since. Essentially the radio conversation was something along the lines of: "Does anyone listening find it difficult to get your kids off their computers and phones and get them playing? It's hard, but sometimes you just need the right toy." They then went on to list several toys and then ask listeners to visit their facebook page and add their own toy suggestions. They trouble was, every single toy they listed I happen to be familiar with and they were all very high priced toys, and at least one of them was very expensive. It makes me think that a certain segment of the population has lost all common sense, at least where it comes to raising children. Because if the best solution to getting a child off an expensive electronic item is to offer an equally expensive non-electronic item to play with, there is something wrong.

First, let's start with the whole computer/phone-thing. While phones and computers have certainly been embraced with open arms by our children and teens, it is a problem that we adults have created. We are culpable because we have not been any better about limiting our own computer and phone usage than our children and have modelling extremely poor habits. If we are acting as though computer usage is right up there in the basic necessity category with food and water, than how do we expect our children who have less life experience and less developed critical thinking skills to do any better. It is an easy form of entertainment and it makes us mentally lazy. Using our brains to figure out something to do can become just as hard as a certified couch potato deciding to compete in a triathlon. Our children are no different.

I can say this definitively because we are still working with my limited computer time rules around here. And it's working. The computer is on first thing in the morning, I do my needed work, a couple of my older children will check their email and other things, and then it's off. Occasionally, we will need to turn it back on to check a time or get a recipe or do some writing that is a week overdue and it hasn't been written because of egregious writer's block, but other than that the computer is off and, speaking for myself, it isn't missed. But it took a while to go from, "Oh yeah, the computer isn't on, I need to do something else," to not even thinking about it.

And even if our children, even those in the teen years, have phones and computers, they are still our children and we are still their parents. We need to give ourselves permission to be the parent even if it makes us unpopular. This means that yes, indeed, we are allowed to set rules for phone and computer usage. For us, this means there are certain times you are allowed to use your phone... and dinner is not one of those times. Nor is church. In fact, I have told my children if I see them pull out their phone to text or check a text, I will take their phone. Even they are adults. Can't you just see little 70 year old me going up to my 30-something son and taking his phone? Actually, I'm pretty sure my children can and thus they believe me. (And they read this blog. I really do mean it. Because I love you. But none of that is new information.)

So, on to the second part of the equation, the idea that we must lure our children away from their electronics with just as expensive items.


Once again, this is a problem of our own making. We have so over-entertained our children that we have essentially made them forget (if we ever allowed them to learn in the first place) how to entertain themselves. You want to teach a child how to play? (And by that, I mean the non-electronically enhanced sort of play.) It's actually pretty simple, but it will take a brave parent because it pretty much flies in the face of every single bit of advertising and marketing you have been exposed to during your entire parenting career. Do not take all of this marketing lightly. You have been exposed to a lot of it and all of it has been directed at parents to induce fear and guilt that they will ruin their children if a certain product isn't bought. The marketers are VERY good at what they do. Their job is to convince you that you absolutely need certain things, and much of the time they must override your commonsense to get you to reach that point. Pretty much, every parent has been brainwashed as to what a child really needs to develop and become an intelligent human being.

Because what makes for a creative, intelligent child actually doesn't involve a whole lot of money. Free time? Yes, but it's difficult to package that and sell it as a class, though I'm sure someone has at one point or another. So, free of charge, here is my list for how to get your child off the computer and playing instead.

Step 1: Turn off the computer or put away the iPod/iPad/phone/DS/Nintendo/etc. This would seem obvious, but it probably needs to be stated right up front.

Step 2: Clear out 50 - 75% of your child's toys and make the inaccessible. I know this seems counter-intuitive, but it's hard to play when you have too many choices. It's overwhelming. Our children do not need so much stuff. Leave the good toys. Those would be the open-ended ones; the ones that can be used in a variety of ways and don't involve batteries.

Step 3: Buy earplugs. These would be for you, the parent. And I'm only being slightly facetious. Your child will complain at first. And wander around saying things such as, "I'm bored!" and "There's nothing to do!" and "Why can't I watch a movie?" or "Can't I just play one more computer game?" You need to stay strong and the earplugs will help tune it out. It is OK for a child to experience boredom. They will not die. And they must go through this step in order to get desperate enough to figure out something to do.

Step 4: Provide raw materials. This would include some (not too many) open-ended toys, some craft supplies (cardboard boxes, crayons, tape), some books of fun activities (books with craft project, fort building books, anything that would spark a child's imagination... and for Heaven's sake, just leave them lying about as if you don't care about them. The second you push them, they will not be nearly as interesting), and a door open to the outdoors.

Step 5: Accept mess. Playing is a messy activity. Children who sit in front of a screen all day do not make messes. You can't turn off the screen and think your house will remain pristine. If this is what you want, then turn the screen back on.

Step 6: Model engagement with the outside world. You will also need to get off your screen/phone and become actively engaged in, well, anything. Children learn what they see. You can tell a child 1000 times a day to get off the computer and go do something, but if you never do, then guess what they learn? But if they see you doing something interesting, they will see that the world is an interesting place and become interested in it as well.

So, there you go. There is a whole world out there that is not appearing on your computer screen. Go experience it.
It's that time of day to click that little heart button...

And don't forget to pray for Brandi... who still waits for a family.


Anonymous said...

Bravo Bravo. Excellent post.

Amy said...

Medium and large boxes have been all my kids' obsession for a couple months around here. Everyday they drag all these boxes out of our garage and make houses, forts, garages for the big wheels, etc. They use lawn chairs for more walls and plastic sleds for roofs over the lawn chairs. It is pretty funny looking and I joke about the daily squatters settlement in our driveway and which neighborhood kids have moved in without me knowing. They have also drawn roads, a police station, jail, gas station, and lots of other stuff for their community out of chalk on the driveway. This is the best kind of imaginative play and at least the giant mess is outside along with the kids. The chalk was about $1, the boxes were free, and the other stuff was lying around the garage.

Angie Butcher said...

Thank you for thinking so much about this and taking the time to write about it.

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