Lately, whenever my son and I are driving in the car, I put down all four windows and cry “wind bomb!” It’s a new game I invented, where the winner is the person who has the last window to go up.
Spoiler: it’s usually his window.
I love fun! Fun is a big part of who I am. So — why is it that I can’t stand imaginary play or role play of any sorts?
Go on the trampoline with him, sure. Boardgames, love too.
I recently even mimicked a scene from the show Is It Cake? for my son’s fifth birthday — I positioned six plates around the table with bananas on them. One of the bananas is actually a cake.
Yet when my son asks: “Do you want to play with me?” Inside, I cringe. Outwardly, I probably cringe too.
Why do I hate it so much?
If I dread imaginary play so much, is there something wrong with me? I seek an explanation from the millennial parenting whisperer Becky Kennedy.
Based in the US, the clinical psychologist is best known as Dr Becky, parenting expert and podcast host.
She reassures me: “it’s OK to not like play.”
Phew. But what does that mean, and what can I do about it.
“Do you want to be this one, or this one?” my son asks me, holding up two of his toys.
In his mind, there is only one right answer: I always play his least favorite transformer toy, Boulder the Rescue Bot.
Imaginary play feels stifling, and it bores me. I’m not sure why I don’t enjoy it, but I really, really don’t.
My heart races. Time stands still, and I feel as though it’s Groundhog day, with a dictator at the helm.
“Nothing is wrong with you,” says Dr Becky. “Realising that it’s okay to not like play, or pretend play is the single most important thing that will help you engage in more play.”
“That’s the number one thing that will help you engage in it more easily.”
It’s all about boundaries
Play matters to kids, and it’s important for their development and early education so it’s about finding the right way — and right time — to make play work for you and your family.
Jumping into play is all well and good, if you have the time and energy. But as many parents experience, much of the time you’re tired, burnt out and have a million other things to do.
We can’t all be Bandit Heeler from Bluey.
“You’re allowed to not play with your kid,” Dr Becky says.
“You can say you’re not available.”
One tip for parents is to set time limits on how long they can play for. We all go about our everyday business doing things that we don’t like to do. It’s true — I hate cleaning, but I still do it.
I try it out. “I can play for 10 minutes today,” I say. It doesn’t sit well with him, and I duck a few blocks to the head.
I try again: “I love playing with you, but that’s all the time I have today. I’m sorry, I wish it was longer too!” This works better.
Putting your phone away is also crucial. Think about it — if you’re talking to someone who has their head slumped down checking social media, how would you feel? If you were out with your mate, and they constantly checked their phone, would you feel annoyed?
It’s hard not to resonate with this tip. We’ve all felt annoyed by someone on their phone.
Building my play muscle
My son loves role play so I want to find a way to make it work for us both.
There are various strategies and ways to approach play, and I’ve tried following Dr Becky’s suggestions that I try to repurpose play for myself.
Scene: We’re sitting outside and we have just crash landed onto a desert island where a giant anaconda lives.
“Water, food and shelter.” That’s what I tell my five-year-old we need.
My mind is searching for what the other thing humans need to survive but I can’t remember. I need to wrap this game up somehow.
“Mayday, mayday — SOS,” I shout. Eventually, we are “rescued”, I can wrap up the game and breathe a sigh of relief.
Later, I turned the pretend play into a lesson. We learned together that ‘mayday’ is derived from the French word m’aider which translates loosely to ‘help me’. After that, we practised how to make an SOS signal by tapping with our fingers on the kitchen bench.
By bringing learning and information into the role play, I found it more tolerable.
So next time he asks me to play, I will try not to scream: “MAYDAY, MAYDAY!” But instead think of the French meaning, and look at the situation how I can help met both mine, and my child’s needs.
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