Think you need to be on hand 24/7 to keep the little ones entertained? You don’t. Letting your children do their own thing is really good for them, writes Tanya Sweeney
Do you remember your own childhood afternoons of making ‘dinner’ with leaves and twigs, sticking buttercups under your chin and creating wedding veils with the curtains?
If so, you’re closer to being able to entertain your children than you think. With many toys providing all sorts of entertainment, parents have lost the joyous art of free, unstructured playing. “It’s essential, more than anything,” notes psychotherapist Stella O’Malley. “We want to raise independent-thinking people who are self-motivated. We are living in a world where children are being taught to expect entertainment from the nearest adult, and it’s us that has taught them that. It’s kind of a false economy as you’re creating a very dependent child.”
Giving a child the freedom to play, entertain themselves and be comfortable in their own company is a great gift, but how do you get started? Amazingly, all you have to do is less.
“I’m bored” is the refrain that no parent wants to hear, but boredom is the take-off point for creativity and imagination. “Otherwise, the child is continuously pulling on you, and on everyone else,” advises O’Malley. Yet according to Mary Barry, chairperson of the Irish Play Therapy Association (IPTA), kids are naturally creative players. “If we provide enough little stimuli for children, they’ll automatically play. If you leave a child in a garden, they’ll find something to occupy themselves.” Boredom, says Barry, is not a bad thing. “When kids talk about being bored, they often mean they want attention. It could be hunger or tiredness — in that moment, they don’t want to do anything for themselves.”
The great thing about free/unstructured play is that you don’t need a lot of play space. “If you’re leaving them to themselves, you’ll need to risk-assess the place first,” says Carol Duffy of Early Childhood Ireland. “Once you’re child is engaged and happy with what they’re doing, they’ll stay at it for longer.” “Kids are not living in a society right now where everyone is outside, so you might have to help them along a bit,” says O’Malley. “”Rather than organising a picnic for them, let them sort out their picnic outside, or ask them, ‘what are you going to do outside today?’”
“With pre-school children, set them up with toys and leave the room,” says O’Malley. “It’s no harm teaching them the concept of ‘Mammy’s busy’. Go to them and relay, ‘I hear you, but you don’t have me yet’. “If you give them an activity, give them a few ‘passes’ for the day, which they can use to interrupt you if you are working,” O’Malley adds. “You’re giving them the idea that you’re there for them, but not on tap.”
“Instead of saying, ‘why don’t you do A or B?’, let them take the initiative,” suggests Barry. “Sometimes we find that kids’ self-esteem has been a little lost now that everything is so prescribed. Providing a few tools that are already in your house will spark their imagination.”
“Add scarves, throws, cushions or things that children can get dressed up in,” says Barry. “One child I worked with turned herself into a mermaid with a large scarf. I love to have a dress-up box with old costumes and old bridesmaid dresses — kids love trying them on.”
“Think about how much time it takes to set up the things you would have played with as a child,” suggests Duffy. “A lot of children have lost that as there’s no making anything any more. With so many scheduled activities, kids don’t have the time to explore. “Go back to the things you did yourself,” Duffy adds. “People don’t realise their kids haven’t had that experience.”