Red, blue, yellow, and green paint jars flank brushes and pads of paper on the table. A kid-sized tamborine, keyboard, and guitar are on the floor. Books, big and small, thick and thin, are piled everywhere. So are dolls and stuffed animals and their requisite equipment, including a mini-stroller, mini-blankets, and a tea set. With this smorgasbord of diversions within easy reach, guess what two-and-a-half-year-old Lucy chose to play with? Her mother’s iPhone.
In this age of technology, it’s tough to get children of-all ages to leave their screens. Hours disappear into thin air as we—young and old—are seduced by videos, games, and social media. Even old-fashioned pleasures take on new-fangled bewitchment. For instance, Solitaire no longer requires you to shuffle and deal out cards; with a click on “new game” you can instantly play over and over and over again—and if you play-out, there’s a highly satisfying celebration. The cards depart the screen in pairs like butterflies or explode as FIREWORKS!!! How can a humble book compete with all that excitement and sense of accomplishment?
But I can’t help thinking that such Solitaire-y—I mean solitary—pleasures should be balanced with human interactive play. It’s not for nothing that for centuries people have liked to dance around the Maypole. It’s not just the joy of dancing in the sun that gets people out; it’s the joy of dancing in the sun with others. Of course, not every day is a holiday that offers ribbons and music and high-stepping, but every day can be infused with joy through creative play with your kids. It’s a way to not only to foster their imaginations, but also to develop their senses of humor.
Baby’s classic first foray into imaginative play is being fed by a spoon that is an “airplane,” flying into the little one’s hangar of a mouth. When my kids got a bit older and could talk, they graduated to the “lumpy, bumpy mattress” game (LBM). I would prop them up on pillows in the middle of my queen-sized bed and then I’d sit down near them, yawning dramatically. “I need some sleep. I can’t keep my eyes open. All I want to do is lie down on this fluffy bed.” Then I would gently lean back to make contact with the nestled child and try to get comfortable. “Oh my goodness! What’s wrong with this bed? It has a lumpy, bumpy mattress.” Cue peals of laughter.
I don’t play LBM with my kids any more, but some playful traditions endure. With my daughter Libby, who was a first-class bedtime delay tactician and a reluctant sleeper—the polite way of saying she never had an easy night’s sleep—I needed a way to make a clean break at night. When the clock struck eight, she trotted out every excuse known to childkind (another book, a glass of water, a visit to the loo, a vital addition to the under-the-covers stuffed animal menagerie, more blankets, fewer blankets, etc.). I always thought that if two superpowers had their fingers poised to press their nuclear buttons, determined to mutually destruct, I’d want Libby in one of the rooms to distract them. With all of her demands, there’d never be an opportunity for simultaneous ignition.
So, given my need for sleep, we came up with a bedtime sign-off. It’s not terribly impressive, but it’s ours and is enhanced by corresponding gestures. “It’s a huggy [we would hug] and a kissy [we would kiss cheeks] and a nightie-poo, I love you.” The coda, which is Libby’s solo work, required us to pause after our declaration and then point our index fingers at each other and say emphatically, “I really mean it.” Libby, now grown, may kill me for this disclosure, but every now and then when she’s in town, we nostalgically perform the routine. And she still doesn’t sleep easily.
Another favorite of my toddlers was “Coleman [their surname] Stew,” invented by my sister-in-law, Gail. She would place a child on her lap and add the imaginary ingredients as they were requested. Carrots that needed chopping (gentle karate-pummeling to the back). Corn kernels to pour in (little finger taps to the head and shoulders). Squishy tomatoes (gentle squeezes of the arms). Lots of other vegetables that required chopping (the favorite action). Part of the child’s challenge was to think of an ingredient or two that made the mix disgusting. So in would go peanut butter that need smearing (gentle rubbing). Or some whipped cream from a noisy spray can. Or some tickling ants. Then the pot had to be stirred and brought to a rolling boil (bouncing up and down). Invariably, everyone would work up a real appetite.
Sometimes a child will create her own game. Three-year-old Louisa was so taken with read-aloud sessions at her nursery school that she became Jane Campion at home, directing any doting adults present (parents and grandparents) to their places (a semi-circle on the floor), then would hold up a book to display its pages and to “read” the story to her rapt audience. Proper classroom etiquette was required. No interrupting the “teacher.” Hands had to be raised to ask questions.
When—without raising my hand—I recently asked my friend Meg, mother of three accomplished grown children, if they had played imaginative games, she answered apologetically, “We are a practical family.” But then she brightened as she remembered that they used to play the tell-a-story-together game in the car. She’d start it (“One day as I walked in the park, I spied a girl with a big red hat”) and then each child would add a sentence or two. Even for this sensible group, the girl in the big red hat was never headed to the accountant.
Bigger kids can handle more elaborate games. My childhood favorite was Fancy Restaurant, organized by my mother when there were lots of leftovers. We would write a menu, filled with lavish, high-flown descriptions of the many humble dishes. Then we would set the table beautifully—tablecloth, candlesticks, flowers—and get dressed up. My mother would be the chef, one of us would be the waiter (with a towel draped over an arm) to jot down the orders on a pad, and everyone else would be customers. Leftovers were elevated from “eww” to “ahh.”
For a crowd-pleasing variation of the imaginary dine-out game, my sister-in-law, Jen, created Fast Food Restaurant. One day, she proposed playing a round with her daughter Abby, who was glued to a TV program. Abby resisted; Jen persisted. Eventually, the television went off and Abby grudgingly listened as her mother gave a protracted order for lots of food (a milkshake, French fries, a burger, apple pie, a soda, a salad, etc.), all with special requirements (no pickle, no lettuce, no mustard, extra ketchup). Then Abby trotted away to “get” the imaginary meal. She stayed away for about ten minutes and when she finally sauntered back, she proved that she had learned to use her imagination well. She told her demanding customer with a dismissive shrug, “Too bad, we ran out of everything.”