Tuesday, May 10, 2011

P is for Play

As I write this my child is getting bored by the same old toons on the T.V. and emptying my wallet of its contents.  I will be scouring the house later for the whereabouts of my insurance cards, credit card, and driver’s license.  I will waste at least a half an hour of my nonexistent time trying to make up for these moments of neglect.  If my cell phone turns up in the process, I will be pleased, but no more whole feeling than I am now,  during one of the countless times when the phone is MIA.   It is safe to say that I am not a Type A mom.

But I do, in my B or C or X-Y-Z way, care deeply about what my 20 month old needs.   Structured playgroups seem like a great idea, in theory.  Cayce certainly enjoyed his time at the last play group, and lord knows that our Thursday mornings at Let’s Get Messy helped get us through a long winter on an island thirty miles out to sea. 

But in many ways it seemed to me that the time at the play group was so structured that the kids didn’t really get a chance to get to know one another.  Of course they got to know one another much better than they had prior to the group, but I find myself wondering whether, had we included more free time and less story time, singing time, and craft time, they might actually feel yet more comfortable with one another.

The principal behind a structured play group for a tot is to give the tots a chance to socialize.  To learn how to play together, and share toys, and take turns on the slide.  It’s a beautiful concept.  But it won’t work if we parents don’t relax a little bit and stop micromanaging their every interaction.  The time in which Cayce had the greatest opportunity to play with his friends was in the free time after the play group was over, but many parents were quickly ushering their kids off to another structured group at the library.   

Even when you think about the name of the group, you understand how far away we’ve come from things that should be natural to us.   We need a class to teach us how to loosen up and have fun?  It reminds me of one passenger I had in my taxi when I was pregnant with Cayce, a young caretaker of a home in Pocomo.  He cackled heartily at the sight of  The Pregnancy Book by Sears and Sears.  You need a book for it? he cried, incredulous.   

I have just started Cayce in a new group, and the change has refueled my reservations.  First of all, there is the way that I project my performance anxiety onto him at the start of each new session.  A new teacher, a new set of people, and suddenly I have forgotten that my little boy is just a little boy who wants to follow the beat of his own drum.  Deep down I have forgotten that this is okay.  I think I must corral him, reign him in, make him sing when the teacher says Sing!  The room is chock full of toys to play with, a climbing structure with a slide, a play kitchen.  Is it really fair to place all these distractions before him and then expect him to focus on the story?  It seems to me he is more focused at the library galley movement and singing classes, where there are no toys around except for the antique dolls in the window.  Here at the ECC my child moves from play station to play station.  I go back to being that little girl breaking out in hives every Sunday night, before the start of every week at a new school. 

But compound my own personal anxiety with the anxiety of all the other mothers.  A strident, nails-on-blackboard motherese in stereo.  It’s not pretty.  All these mothers of small children that are enough just as they are were suddenly mothers of very small children that have to prove themselves in some way.   Names were sung in the most saccharine sounding high pitched voices as very small children were ushered from what they were doing on the stairs or the slide and lured into finding their name cards on the rug in the circle.

I heard myself doing it too, and was horrified.  I balked at the specter of an eighteen year molding process.  What we were doing in that moment didn’t feel like it was for the benefit of our kids, as much as for each other.  And certainly our kids could see through this crap?  I mean, this was not the way we behave at home.  We don’t ask them to perform on the spot at home, do we?  It seems to me my son just charms us and shows us what he knows naturally, when the moment inspires him.  Not that I don’t show him off a bit for Grandma on Skype, or for friends who haven't seen him since he started stringing together sentences and little expressions.  

I’m sure tensions will ease as this new grouping of mothers and their children get to know one another.  I wish I could kill the fluorescent lights that give the room an institutional feel.  But we can make up for that with our human warmth.  Whether it’s competitive or nurturing, freeing or stifling to our kids is up to us. Will it be a place where each child is encouraged to be his or her full and unique self? Or will there be a hierarchy, where each child is ranked against the other?  Will it be a place where the children learn to trust one another, and themselves?  These are the things we determine each moment, in our actions, in what we do with what we’re given, and in what and how we give to our children. 


Joy said...

Thanks Rachel! Your frank comments are delightful. Hope you had a wonderful Mother's Day. Joy

Rachel Dowling said...

I'm glad you enjoyed the read, Joy. It's nice to feel understood. And always so nice to hear from you, my beautiful and amazing doula. Kisses to your sweet children!

Amber @ Au Coeur said...

I find Nora much more attentive at the library story time, too. Of course it's easier to pay attention in an empty room than in one full of toys, especially if you normally have free play in that room. But, I do think there's some value in introducing the idea of waiting to play with toys or following directions despite tantalizing distractions. Obviously we can't expect much of nearly two-year olds, but I don't think there's harm in trying.

I'm not sure how the "learn to read" group will go over for Nora. Toddler time during the winter worked great for us. She isn't really interested in engaging with other kids yet and, frankly, often gets freaked out when they try to engage with her. Structured activity seems to make that engagement less scary for her.