Recently my 78-year-old Mum suffered multiple fractures in her arm. Typically, the incident happened as she tripped whilst on her way to another table tennis victory over her 50-year-old male opponent. My mother has always enjoyed playing. Whether with us, her grandchildren, or her own friends. The problem is her competitive streak means that she has always tended to dominate, control and lead the play to suit her agenda.
In Early Years education we talk a lot about if, when and how adults should interact and intervene with children’s play. It’s accepted that adults need to stop, watch and wonder before involving themselves. However, this was something my mother never did.
Crying when I was two years old, as I watched my Mum climbing a tree and I couldn’t reach her.
Watching my Mum swinging off a tree branch which subsequently snapped. Leaving Mum lying groaning on the ground as my Dad went apoplectic due to the possible damage to the tree.
Bringing my first boyfriend back to the family home, opening the door to reveal my Mum demonstrating to my younger brother’s friends how to properly slide down the banister hand rail.
Now that I’ve finally got over the embarrassment I realise that it was only Mum, who every day after returning from work, regularly played with us as children. Other children in our street told us that their parents didn’t do the same as they felt their children had enough playmates of their own age... and my Mum of course.
I agree that other kids rather than adults are naturally better playmates for children. They are more likely to have similar interests, senses of humor and energy levels. They are less likely to try to manipulate play into deliberate and perhaps boring teaching opportunities. But my Mum was more interested in play to have fun rather than the educational opportunities. She just encouraged us to join in with her play instead of asking questions to check if we had learnt anything.
She would take us all over the park trying to find the pirates, spies and villains. We would look for clues that would magically appear in an old shoe in the tree or a strange pebble found in a flower bed, or on one memorable occasion a bewildered pensioner sitting peacefully on a park bench. Often it would end up with other kids joining in and lots of screaming as we ran to escape in the finale.
Experts tell us how important parent-child play is. They describe it as a way for you to bond with and get to know your child. So, was my Mum’s dominating play really a bad thing? I only know from experience that some children do like adult involvement. Its’s feels good to have attention and adds another dimension when the adult is fully engaged.
My childhood experiences have of course informed my approach as an Early Years practitioner. When I first started as a Nursery teacher I too found myself wanting to control the children’s play – if this was a result of nature and nurture is a question to be answered on another day! But as much as I hate to admit it I found myself over acting the role of the grandma in a red riding hood home corner. Gleefully chucking children off the block bus because they didn’t have a ticket. I even chased children around the playground on a broom and tied myself up to a tree, asking them to rescue me.
It was fun. Yet as I became more experienced and read more I began to recognise the benefits of listening to children and allowing them to lead the direction of their own learning. It's now a rare occasion where I have stop myself from rushing in by counting slowly to 10.
As the years have passed I have also re-evaluated my Mother’s play. On reflection I think she is an immersive player and certainly not passive in any way. By giving us ideas she was enabling us to be involved in her world. In some ways she was teaching us how to play and we were absorbed in her world of wonder.
So even though I see ‘play’ as an expression of freedom, a license to explore and have fun, children can lead or follow the play as they wish. We were definitely followers in my Mum’s case, but play remains and should be personal to each child.
As Mother’s Day approaches I’ll take the opportunity to wish my Mum a very happy one. I know she’s already planning to take on her table tennis opponent with her ‘good’ arm. I hope everyone else has fun too. It’s ok to play providing everyone wants to join in!
On the way back from the hospital I asked Mum if she ever allowed us to lead the games she invented when we were children. Certainly not she said proudly “It was all my idea!”