There are grandmas. And then there are me-maws.
I had a me-maw.
As a boy I went to her house often. She personified love. She did anything to help my sister and me mature into respectable adults. We spent many nights at her house cooking, creating and playing with homemade toys, and romping around in the huge sand piles situated at the cement block company next to her home. She taught us that to have a little fun was just enough.
Friends, parents and grandparents alike, I think we all underestimate the influence we can have in shaping our children and grandchildren. As noted child therapist Gary Landreth noted, “A child’s play is his ‘work,’ and the ‘toys’ are his words.”
If this is true, Me-maw was definitely our employer.
Surprisingly, “research has found that the availability of play materials (like toys and games) is one of the most consistent predictors of intelligence.”[i] Isn’t that cool? In other words, when it comes to playthings, inexpensive, simple, and open-ended toys and games facilitate the most brain development, as opposed to newfangled or fancy technological devices that often leave little room for creativity. Get out the Legos and Lincoln Logs parents, because boxes, bubbles, blocks, bowls, and baby dolls are all great props for engaging in imaginative play.[ii]
Viewing my childhood through the loving environment Me-maw created for us, I have a deeper gratitude and appreciation for her simplicity than ever before. Her simple environment was actually a creative factory for our brain growth.
While there are many different ways to play, unstructured relational play seems to present the greatest potential for brain development. Unstructured play helps our children develop a healthy sense of self and learn to set and achieve goals independently.[iii] Even more, unstructured command free play with Mom and Dad is critical to brain growth.[iv]
What is command free play with Mom and Dad? First, it requires us to set aside our own agendas, enter our child’s world, and let her take the lead in inviting us into her play. No iPhone. Just our undivided attention for at least 20 minutes. It’s seeing the world through our child’s eyes.
Carefree. Curious. Fully engaged.
Here are some other suggestions for making unstructured command free play happen in our home:
- Try to make it a daily habit. Our children getting 20 minutes with us in their world is gold for their emotional and cognitive development.
- Never should we use this type of play as a reward for good behavior, so don’t cancel it if your child misbehaves or has a rough day.
- Don’t sit there like a bump on a log. Engaging with our child means being an active participant. We’re not watching her play; we’re playing with her.
- These play experiences begin at birth. Don’t wait until your child can toss a ball or put a puzzle together to start.
- If you have multiple kids, consider creative ways to make the most of your children’s varying schedules. I try to have my unstructured time with Landon when Kennedy is napping and vice versa. Or, if possible, recruit your spouse, so each child is getting quality time with mom or dad each day. If you have school-aged children, you can plan command free play with your toddler while your second and sixth grader are in school. You can also hang out one-on-one with your teenager once the younger kids are in bed.
- Start small. Even if you begin getting in two or three times a week with each child, you develop a culture of stretched imagination and priority.
Increasingly, research is showing that going back to old-school simplicity is the way to go. You don’t need a screen to give your child an advantage. You are the advantage.
Excerpts from this post taken from Safe House: How Emotional Safety is the Key to Raising Kids Who Live, Love, and Lead Well.
[i] Jenn Berman, “10 reasons play makes babies smarter,” CNN, January 31, 2011, www.cnn.com/2011/HEALTH/01/31/play.babies.smarter.parenting.
[ii] Berman, “10 Reasons Play Makes Babies Smarter.”
[iii] Jane E. Barker, Andrei D. Semenov, Laura Michaelson, Lindsay S. Provan, Hannah R. Snyder, and Yukp Munakata, “Less-Structured Time in Children’s Daily Lives Predicts Self-Directed Executive Functioning,” Frontiers in Psychology, June 17, 2014, doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00593.
[iv] Greenspan and Lewis, Building Healthy Minds, 112–113.