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Keeping gloves off kids' play

Hovering can take the fun out of your children's games

By Alicia Fabbre, Special to the Tribune

March 6, 2013

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In this age of play dates and play groups we sometimes forget that playtime doesn't have to be organized to be fun. And now, a recent study shows that moms who take too much of a role in playtime could find that their children wind up being less engaged with them or showing some negative emotions toward them.

We talked to the study's lead author, Jean Ispa, a professor of human development and family studies at the University of Missouri at Columbia, to find out how to keep the fun in playtime. Dr. Ispa has three grown children and one grandchild. Here is an edited transcript:

Q: Why is playtime important in a child's development?

A: That is really how children are learning in all areas — cognitive, social and emotional. It also builds their knowledge, creativity and ability to get along with other people. Some people have called play the work of children. I don't like that term too much because play should be fun and work can be fun or not — but play should be fun. To be useful, play should be fun.

Q: Your study talks about how highly directive mothers could be impacting a child's playtime and their feelings toward mom. But isn't it OK if I'm just trying to show my child that the little cow goes through the barn doors, not the windows? Is that really a big deal?

A: When children got upset it seemed to be that they were not enjoying being with their mothers. (The mothers) were saying, "No, that's not right," and taking the toy away from the child and then putting it through the door. These children were very young, and it's fine to tell them (the cow goes through the door) but when you force it and don't allow them to try it … if kids tried to put the cow through the window it probably wouldn't fit and they would be learning. They learn especially well through active exploration. It's a deeper lesson than if they were just told that (the cow doesn't fit in the window). And if it does fit, why not put it through the window?

Q: What is the best way to approach playtime? Should we let them explore on their own and not be so worried if they eat that bit of dirt from the garden or should we sit by their side and watch them like hawks?

A: I think there is probably a happy medium. The happy medium is that you're there, you're watching them and when you see that they're doing something over and over again, they're sort of stuck in playing the same way, you can suggest a slightly higher level of play. I don't advocate doing nothing, and children learn a lot by playing with their parents and older children.

I think you want to give them a lot of leeway to create their own play, and it's very appropriate to suggest things. Let's say if they're pretending to feed themselves and then you might say, "Oh, let's feed the doll," but if they aren't ready, then move back and wait for another day. Or if a child is counting objects and they mess up, suggest touching each one as you count. Certainly suggestions are appropriate.

Q: What are your favorite games or toys for children?

A: My favorites are crayons, markers, Tinkertoys, Legos — the kinds of things that give kids a lot of free rein to create and don't just have one purpose. Pots and pans — kids love pots and pans. Play-Doh is also great.

Q: Many moms take an active role in planning playtime, be it a play date with Johnny from down the street or a play group at the park district. How does this impact our children? Is it better for them to just run down the street and make their own friends and play schedules?

A: Obviously, when they're preschoolers you have to be around and play dates are totally appropriate at that age. When I was a child, you just walked outside and there were a lot of kids playing. It's a different day, so I think at the preschool level play dates are totally appropriate. I think that's a time when parents can make sure their kids are safe and go in another room … and allow kids to have unstructured time. It is important because they allow (the children) to amuse themselves and come up with their own games.

Q: Do you need to have something for them to do every single day of the week?

A: I don't think so. I would tell my mother that I was bored, and she would say, "That's good for you." It forces you to have to think on your own and come up with ways to entertain yourself, and that's a great life skill. Having some time when there is "nothing to do" is good for kids — and they'll find things to do.

Q: If you are that "directive mom" at playtime, what can you do to ease up?

A: You can maybe bring something to read when the kids are playing so you have something else to do. Tell yourself, trust the kids. If you just hang back a bit they will explore, figure things out, problem-solve and their relationship will be better.

Q: What games did you play with your children?

A: We played pretend. … When they were little we built things together with blocks and Legos, we played checkers and I loved to read books to them. I think all that is good. As they got older in the elementary school years we played board games. Those are good because kids are fascinated by rules and how rigid you need to be on rules.