I have been reading a book on the research of play (“The Play’s the Thing”, E. Jones, G. Reynolds, Teachers College Press). I came across this great description: “The master player is a child who uses materials imaginatively in sustained, complex dramatic play. He is able to negotiate with others to keep the play going, working out social as well as material problems.” (p. 17)

I immediately thought of many children who fit this description, some who struggle with it, what I have read about improv and a lecture I recently listened to by Brene Brown (https://www.udemy.com/the-power-of-vulnerability/#/lecture/1432428:92).

These pictures are of some recent “master players” at school. Every year, the 4s and 5s usually come together to create a “master player repertory group.” They go from being 2s and threes, or solo players, and become a pack of wildly creative storytellers, using all loose parts on the playground, all toys, all balls, all climbers as part of the story, which changes minute by minute and includes anyone who is willing and able. A story I overheard from a recent female master player: a boy and a girl barreled outside (the home of the best master play) and said (it was near Halloween), “Let’s be scary things!” The girl was going to be a “scary witch.” The next child who came out was invited to this game, and replied: “I don’t LIKE scary things.” The first girl replied: “Okay, we can be nice witches!” All was now right with the world, and the three ran off together.

Tina Fey, talking about improv, said one of the rules was: “Always say “Yes!” Vivi is a “yes sayer”; she keeps the play going by incorporating new ideas into the mix, trusting in the outcome. She is okay with other children’s input. The children who struggle with play have trouble letting go of control. Who can’t identify with this?

Brene Brown was describing “play” as one of the keys to wholehearted living (the opposite of living in shame). “The opposite of play is not work—the opposite of play is depression.” (Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are). She describes the difference between play and competition: when two bears play, one pins the other, and then jumps up and runs away, to be chased. The goal is for the play to continue.

How can adults foster play? 1) By not exposing young children to too many “adult ideas of play” (as in, adult-created fantasy in books, movies, cartoons). This replaces what a child can think up, which is based on their experiences (“Lets go camping, on a boat, hunting, fishing”; “Let’s be mommy and daddy tigers, bears, aliens, snakes”). 2) By going outside with them, so that they want to be there, but not providing any entertainment, or at least not all the ideas. Play comes out of not knowing what to do. Adult input can limit this. 3) By not “playing” with them (pretend play). This does not mean don’t wrestle, don’t throw balls, don’t blow bubbles, don’t garden, don’t wash the car, don’t go for hikes! Just don’t pretend play, see above. I tell children: “I’m not good at that”, which is true. My time for that is passed, although I hope I use my imagination in other ways every day. (This may be controversial, and that’s okay. This is based on my observations.) 3) Have lots of loose parts and loose time. If play comes out of boredom, let it happen. Just have some “stuff” around to fiddle with.

“Loose parts” are a “new playground” term. Have you driven by beautiful playgrounds with no children in them? I have. Maybe it is because children also need “stuff” to add to their play: sand and water are the favorites, but mulch and mud and tools and buckets and other containers and sticks and rocks and acorns and pine needles and string are all great. Moving and carrying and hiding and finding are all part of many stories. 4) Let go of “clean.” This is harder for some adults than others. It helps if you remember the fun of mud yourself. If not, try to let it go, at least sometimes. 5) Inside, remember the loose parts! The 4s and 5s at school LOVE to dig through the recycling bin and “make things”: picture frames, mouse traps, masks, helmets, maps. Paper plates and toilet paper rolls may be the best inventions on the planet for play. and, Brene Brown would add: 6) Model play: that is, doing something mostly because you enjoy it, whatever it is: cooking, reading, scrapbooking, taking pictures, decorating your house, writing, running, singing. dancing.

Giving comfort, escaping shame


If you have not read the work of Brene Brown, or seen her TED talk, please do.

If you haven’t noticed yet, parenting pushes all of your buttons; especially the buttons you didn’t know that you had. 🙂 Of course, it is very hard to reflect on your childhood and the assumptions in your family, but it is part of the work, I think, of parenting.

One comment that I hear often from parents is: “I don’t want to be THAT PARENT!‘” I think this comes from our past, and that we can mean different things by it. What is our biggest fear as a parent? And where does that come from?

Our children are more resilient than we can imagine, and, if we are honest with them, the way Brene Brown describes being honest in this video, your children will stay in relationship and learn something about what to do with their own shame.

(She describes the difference between shame and guilt this way: “Guilt is when you know that you did something “bad”; shame is when you believe that you are bad. Shame leads to bad outcomes on every level.)

So, whatever you fear, please face your fear, or you can pass on your shame to the next generation.

if you are afraid for your child not to be pleased or entertained, to be angry, or to stand your ground, your child may feel unable to cope with difficulty.

If you are afraid of a child who is “spoiled”, you might be too strict, and fail to express your empathy, leaving your child anxious.

If you are afraid that your child is not learning enough, you may keep them too busy, and not give them enough time to discover on their own.

If you are uncomfortable with structure, you may leave your children hanging about what to expect.

If you are afraid that they will get emotionally or physically hurt, you may not let them explore relationships and environments on their own. We learn best when the learning is our own discovery!