Anna Dusseau | 3rd April 2020
Teenwolf and I have this game we like to play. Wow wow WOW sweet child of mine! Wash your mouth out with soap and water, for goodness’ sake; this is a family blog. Okay, so this PG-rated game is called ‘where will we be this time next year?’ and we don’t play it very often in truth, as the kids aren’t major fans. It usually involves coffee and the laptop, with one of us bouncing the baby and acting as a tunnel for middle monkey’s RC vehicle to steer though, while the other one flicks across different websites, reporting on things like the current value of our house, the cost of a round the world family ticket and regulations for home schooling in New Zealand. Diva daughter, the only one to even bother with our game, sort of lolls cat-like across the back of the sofa, nodding faintly like Alice at the start of the story who was ‘beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank.’ I, too, close my eyes as the baby squeezes my face, imagining I am paying for an Indian head massage at some posh London spa, and through the perpetual buzz of the RC and the sharp tap of the keyboard, I distinctly hear my daughter click her tongue and ask how many minutes are left until we are going to play The Borrowers again. My heart sinks but at the end of the day, fair is fair. Everyone has a different game they like to play, but the cultivation of these imaginative worlds is essential to all our well-being; now more than ever.
What is creative play? For more detail on brain elasticity and the benefits of home education in this respect, check out my post ‘The Science of Growing Old: Why Homeschooling is Good for Your Brain‘, but for now let’s begin by saying that creative play is about more than putting a box of Lego on the table while you make dinner. Sorry, I wish it wasn’t so, but you are unfortunately going to have to get involved. In fact, if ‘play is our brain’s favourite way of learning’ (Ackerman, 1999) then surely we must be investing a significant proportion of our home education in ensuring that this is happening regularly and meaningfully for our children on a ‘deep level’; not just handing them a box of toys. Oh sure, independent play is an essential skill in itself, but this should occur naturally where there is significant parental investment in developing the quality and mental horizons for the art of game playing. Independent play is only fun if your mind is a rich tapestry of imaginative possibilities and helping children to achieve this must be one of our most serious responsibilities as a parent. From crawling around the living room on hands and knees with archaeological explorers riding on your back, to playing peekabo with the baby or gasping appreciatively as the tiny testosterone head performs the same flip 50 times with his car, it is always well worth setting aside time in the day to physically get onto the floor with the kids and engage in their games on a real level because, ultimately, this is an investment both in them and in yourself. If research shows that school children focus better on their studies immediately after break time (Pellegrini and Holmes, 2006) then for all our sanity, we need to get some serious playing done if we want a chance of nailing this work from home thing, right?
Finding your voice. But it’s so boring! Oh, I know. Or at least, I know what you mean, because it can be extremely dull if you don’t get into the game. What I tend to do in order to avoid the urge to jump out the window every time my children approach me armed with plastic toys, is bring as much of myself into the game as possible in order to make it bearable or even – astonishingly – rather enjoyable. So, Voldemort, for example (currently played by the ever-versatile Ariel barbie, rocking a shaved head and quite terrifying Hannibal-esque paper mask) is currently practising social distancing and is communicating with his Death Eaters via Zoom meetings only. And the baby’s favourite talking football always loves a good game of ‘boo!’ from behind the sofa, but has to take regular coffee breaks and occasionally starts cursing in French, develops a sudden sour personality twist and threatens to sell all the children on Ebay. We call him Pascal. But that’s just one type of creativity, because imaginative play can cover an enormous range of activities, from playful cooking (discussing silly ingredients – like worms and arsenic – that you’d never actually put in the food) to chasing round the garden pretending to play Quiddich (I have no idea when the Potter phase is going to end in our house, either) or just a good game of chess. All forms of play – whether symbolic, socio-dramatic, or logistical – help children to develop divergent problem-solving skills and increase the level of ‘creativity [demonstrated] in their attempts to solve problems (Pepler and Ross, 1981). I mean, my goodness! I am praying that Boris Johnson’s childhood benefited from a particularly playful nanny at this point.
Just go with it. My dad used to play this game with me whenever he picked me up from school (yes, apparently I went to school, although it sometimes involved wrestling me in through the gates) in which he pretended he’d lost the car keys. ‘Oh no,’ he’d say, patting down his pockets and frowning at me. ‘What shall we do?’ I knew this game like the back of my hand and would immediately start scanning the car park. ‘How about that one?’ I’d say, pointing to a particularly shiny car. And we’d sneak over to check it out. ‘No, it’s got an alarm,’ my dad would sigh (this was the 90s, remember). ‘Let’s try another one.’ Thus, we would meander across the car park, looking furtively over our shoulders and giving each other the nod when we saw a suitable vehicle to commandeer, eventually arriving at our actual car at which point dad would make an extremely elaborate pretence of picking the lock, then tell me to hop in quick before faux hot-wiring the engine and, with a yell of triumph, roaring out onto the open road with the goosebumps still tingling on the back of my neck. Charmingly illegal though I am aware this game was, it has stuck so firmly in my mind that I still play it today with my own children, only now the game has a new dimension as teenwolf wasn’t raised like this and doesn’t much approve. So the new game is called ‘mummy, don’t’ and involves me largely playing on my own or with middle son (who displays a similar genetic requirement for daily adrenaline shots) whilst being followed at a steady pace by the French husband who conducts a bored running commentary on mummy’s deviant antics for the amusement of daughter and baby, both wearing expressions of serious disapproval but inevitably keen to perform this car-seeking ritual again the next day. Which is a long way of saying: get involved in the game and make things playful where you can.
Trying to eke out the last drop of our ‘let’s-sell-the-house-and-go-travelling’ game, I squint over teenwolf’s shoulder and squeal in excitement. ‘That one, that one!’ I exclaim, jumping up and down, which the baby finds hilarious. Middle son has had enough of this nonsense and deliberately sends his RC car into my ankle with a crunch. I guess it’s time for that bloody Borrowers game? And I realise, with a sudden stomach-dive, that they are going to want to check the elaborate Borrower traps which we set up yesterday in the garage. Oops! I shoot teenwolf the Christmas ‘keep-them-in-this-location’ face and slip out with the baby to take a nibble of the biscuit bait and leave another teeny tiny note from Arrietty who has, once again, hoodwinked them in their daily efforts to capture her. You gotta get involved, right? I sometimes seriously wonder whether the current mental health crisis could be combated by giving children less screen-swiping and more immersive play time. The lifelong gift of making your mind a good place to be. But don’t worry, because apparently ‘it’s never too late to have a happy childhood’ (Robbins, 2001). So, whether there’s a teddy bear tea party or some fantasy carjacking on the menu today, just go ahead and make it happen. The game is always waiting to be played.
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