We are our Children’s First Teachers

The Magical and Enchanted World of Children shapeimage_2

My childhood memories are flooded with magical days of play.  From hopping on imaginary islands consisting of pillows strewn on the floor, pounding on gumamela leaves that make an oily paste for the soup I would feed my dolls, to tinkering with my Dad’s cocktail tools, as I was pretending to be the dentist drilling on our garden’s limestone.  It was no wonder that my mom would go crazy cleaning up after us, that the gumamela plant always lost its flowers, and that our perfectly manicured garden was always in need of further landscaping.  Who would forget climbing trees and rooftops, and eating wild cherries or the sour kaimito fruit.  I can’t remember a day when I went home without the sweet smell of the sun on me, my socks filled with the prickly leaves of grass that looked like rice.

Now with my own children growing in the city, I am at a loss as to what to do.  What kind of enchanted world can I leave them with, with which their imagination had free reign to build castles and reach the stars?  How can they create stories when the stories have already been made for them and served on a silver platter? How will they enjoy cutting up pretend-carrots when the knife won’t go through the plastic, and especially when the carrot has already been brilliantly cut up for them?  And what about outdoor play? How will my children climb trees and rooftops, when we live in a tall story building smack in the middle of a smog-filled city?  I can’t even give them freedom to eat an apple, without worrying about pesticides!

The Vital Role of Play

Decades of research has shown that active and imaginative play is vital for a child.  According to the American Academy of Pediatrics: “Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. Play is important to healthy brain development.”

But not just any kind of play.  The play that is important is play that is child-driven, unstructured and allowed to develop on its own pace. “When play is controlled by adults, children acquiesce to adult rules and concerns and lose some of the benefits play offers them, particularly in developing creativity, leadership, and group skills.” See Article of the AAP.

However, research has shown that modern life has reduced free, active and imaginative child play.  A number of children today are  being raised in a hurried and pressured style that has limited what would have otherwise been child-driven play.  I know a mother who scurries about, dragging her 4-year-old son to swimming lessons, then to gymnastics, then to Kumon, and jokingly telling me that it’s best because by the end of the day, her otherwise hyperactive child is exhausted and can only sleep.  She is one of many mothers I know, who, hoping to ensure their Superchild’s place in the world, bombard their children with highly-packed enrichment activities and lessons left and right, when all they need and want to do is PLAY. Additionally, with the heavy emphasis on academics, some schools have shortened or done away with the time for free play to increase time for academics.  Apart from the frantic pace, children are now being raised with the increasing influence and even invasion of electronic media and commercial toys.

The Tyranny of Toys

Children have forgotten to play.  Instead, they have become passive observers, content to sit in front of a television or computer screen, as set stories are laid out before them, and pushing a button to make their fully made-up dolls sing and dance. How can it be suddenly possible to have a child sit passively still for three hours? Their eyes remained glued to the television set.  They don’t even glance at you if you talk to them, as they robotic-ally click on their Playstations.  Children choose to spend more time in front of the television or computer screens instead of experiencing the world itself.  As a child, I could not, for any reason, sit still for three hours!  There was always something to do, something to create, and something to explore.

Battery-driven gadgets; dolls that talk, sing, dance and have a dress for every occasion; fully functional play kitchens; even toy cars that you can drive!  These toys leave our children with little to imagine.  They become spectators or passive observers and their great powers of imagination are paralyzed.  Their mind is not allowed its wonderful capacity to create the worlds that inspired C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien.

“The child’s imagination is the engine of healthy play.”  Simple toys with natural materials like wood, boxes, sand and shovels, clay, stuffed animals and simple dolls invite children to create their own scenes— and then knock them down and start over…”  An empty box becomes a cave, a canoe, a cabin, a store, or whatever or whenever the child’s magic of imagination decrees.”  See http://www.allianceforchildhood.org/projects/play/play_fact_sheet.htm

I found myself caught in the web, hoping to free up some time for me, by relegating my responsibilities to Mr. Nick Jr..  Aside from giving me ample time to do my own work, it let go of guilt feelings, as my daughter was “happy” watching her favorite characters.  I was also once a proud mother of a kid who didn’t ask for toys.  However, once you open Pandora’s Box, it becomes a toy chest filled with so many toys you have to buy, from Singing Barney, to having a collection of all the Disney Princesses, and if doesn’t stop.  I would buy a toy, she would feign joy, play with it for an hour, maybe half a day, then toss it in the toy chest, ready for the next new toy.  It was a never-ending cycle! So what’s a mother to do?

My Ongoing Quest

My children are TV/computer-free.  My four year old used to watch TV until she was three, and then for the past 2 years, she has no TV at all. How did I do it?  Cold Turkey.  That’s the only way.  Every time she would ask for television or computer, I would distract her with arts and crafts, a good story, imaginative play or outdoor time.  I make it a point every day to take her to the park where she can run, climb, marvel at nature, and dream up her stories.

I try not to buy mechanical or fully built toys.  I try to encourage simple toys that are wooden or natural, those that inspire creative play like my own dresses and cloths, clay, her stuffed animals and simple dolls.

These changes  started from a commitment to Waldorf (at first, Mikael Playgarden and now Acacia School) that what they  do in the day care/school, be somehow practiced in the house, from the principles of imitation (to be worthy of imitation) and routine (rhythms in everyday life), to allowing the child freedom to create, imagine and play.  Waldorf’s toys, furniture and play equipments are all natural ingredients, nourishing my child’s senses and allowing her imagination to run wild. Wooden balls become meatballs, sticks become noodles, chairs become airplanes that would take her to faraway places.  They also arrange the daily activities in a rhythmical sequence so that each rhythm is repeated daily.  Rhythms are really the basis of our existence, just notice how everything has a rhythm and cycle- your heartbeat, your breathing, night and day, seasons. Children are also free from electronic media, and are provided with healthy and biodynamic food.

I have certainly sensed a change in my daughter’s play.  The other day, when we were riding the car, she told me “Mommy we are on a magic carpet.”  And the other day, she put two raisins atop each other, she asked me what it was.  I replied: “two raisins.”  She said: “No mommy, its a horse.” Oh, the exquisite joys of childhood.

“The early years of childhood are very important for the whole life of the child because this is the time the basis is laid for how the person will stand in the world.  Play is one of the most important activities of childhood.  In play children get to know the world and themselves.   Play is educating the senses and motor skills; by imitation the child settles in with humanity, develops creativity and imagination and forms faculties of thought life…”  (See Hellman Horst, Appropriate Toys, June 19, 2006.)

*In case you are interested, the Mikael Playgarden is located at the ISIP Center, Palma corner Manalac Streets (behind Rockwell.) 09178106145  Acacia School is located in Sta. Elena, Sta. Rosa Laguna.  You can contact them through 09178338284.

*For wooden or simple toys, you may check out some  of the wonderful toys I was able to order from Maritess Sobeng at toysandstuff or check out Melissa and Doug toys at Rustans, and Haba wooden toys at Hobbes. Better yet, just make your own rag dolls, knitted animals, silk cloths, wooden blocks or sticks. You can find all sorts of toys from nature and they work wonders for a child’s spirit and soul.

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