Have you ever heard of child-led play? When I first did, I thought I am doing this with my child every time we play! But now I know I am not. This week I attended parenting classes, run by Linsey McNelis, an accredited Play Therapist (www.playtherapygalway.com). It was interesting evening, with good bit of knowledge, completely non-judgemental atmosphere and ‘gentle’ exercises, which supported our reflection and practice of child-led play skills.
Some ideas really changed the way I think about my role in my children’s play and I’d like to share it here. It’s going to be quite prescriptive, as we were explicitly told how parents should behave and what should they say – adopting child-led play rules means following a particular scheme. For the certain amount of time you are setting the scene for child-led play and within this time limit you are consciously trying to follow your child and follow the rules.
I can’t speak for other parents but for me it turned out that I am not doing child-led play ‘instinctively’ that is, when I spontaneously play with my child, I am doing things which direct my child in certain way and which are focused on learning rather than play itself. It comes naturally; I don’t feel it’s dominating the room, but I know it’s there.
So my first discovery of the workshop was that it is important for the child and for our relationship to make sure that in our interaction there is a space for child-led play. Instead of going to classes for toddlers, or some other structured (and paid) activity, you can do your own ‘classes’ at home and it will be the one which your child invented.
Child is in control
Second discovery is that once we are in this space, the child is behind the steering wheel and her imagination is the limit (within safety limits of course). So what I learnt is that in this particular moment child doesn’t learn anything from me. We are in the world where ‘anything can be anything’ and that includes 4+1 equals 13 and a toy figurine is having all the colours on her sweater mixed up and cat pretends to be a cow. It is all right for a child to make mistakes and it’s parent’s rule number one not to stepping in with corrections, lectures on animal classifications and classes from logic and morals. It can be difficult to just leave the things out of order and sabotaging grandma’s efforts to get the numbers right, but at this present moment it is more important that the child doesn’t feel assessed and criticised in any way.
There will be time for practicing the colours later and there will be time to get the maths right.
Praising children in new ways
Third discovery is about praising children (in general, not only during child-led play). I love praising my children and my language is full of positive adjectives like: good, beautiful, great, fantastic – they are all apply to my wonderful child in general. I think it is great that children hear a lot of applause from parents and I am sure it motivates them to ‘do well’. But what I was missing out was different ways to engage in positive feedback with the child. The one I learnt this week is using more descriptions and concrete comments about child’s actions and achievements. I am practising this for the past two days and it doesn’t come easily. Sometimes it sounds unnaturally and weird. But few times I did came up with replacement for ‘good girl’ which was adequate to the situation and went something like: ‘you helped me with all the dishes, even the heaviest! The dishwasher is all empty and ready to use again’. I was impressed with our co-operation in the kitchen and by describing my daughter’s input, I supported her in learning about her achievements from actual outcomes of her actions. This (as we hope) is going to influence her self-esteem and let her built it on more internal rather than external motives. And this is believed to be more solid base for confidence and strong Ego.
I am a trainer of personal skills and before a break for becoming stay at home mum I led many workshops during which I was presenting participants with some ideas of how to change the way they give feedback, set boundaries, deal with the stress. I am reminding myself, that the real learning starts ‘at home’, when people actually decide to try out and practise new ways. I am doing this now and waiting for a feedback from children involved.