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Parent-Child Play

Japanese
The task given to 3,600 parents and caretakers of children under age 13 was to keep a diary describing how youngsters spent their day. It was found that the amount of time devoted to play had decreased 10% from similar data that was gathered a generation earlier. Some observers defend the trend to over-schedule children as the only practical way to ensure safety while the parents have to be at their workplace. In addition, public perception regarding the value of play appears to have changed as well. Parents say they would like to respect the motivation of daughters and sons to play but are uncertain whether pretending can provide much benefit. Furthermore, they wonder whether it is appropriate to support reliance on imagination as the best way to prepare children for getting along in the real world. Then too, parents want to know if they should get involved in imaginative play with their children. Other adults express similar reservations about the consequences of solitary play. In our parent-child play research conducted with the Rockefeller Foundation, Danforth Foundation, and the Toy Manufacturers of America, many questions were raised by parents. Most reported that they were able to make better decisions regarding the imaginative play of three to six year olds after considering the following answers provided by our findings.

How should I respond when my child asks me to play?
How long can I remain interested while at play?
How important is my influence during play?
How can I support my child's self-esteem while we play?
Should I praise my child during play?
How can I encourage creative abilities in my children?
Am I willing to set aside time for play?
How worthwhile am I as a model for leisure?
How important is it to spend time together?

How should I respond when my child asks me to play?

Boys and girls are expected to learn the use of leisure time from adults whose work seldom makes them available for play. Many boys and girls are told by their parents: "I am too busy to play now--wait until later." This evasion is not a deliberate attempt to frustrate sons and daughters. On the contrary, it reflects the difficulty of arranging time with our children. When they ask us to play, the best response is to join them. Even though play is the favorite activity of children, adults often wonder about its value and are reluctant to pretend themselves because they believe it makes them appear silly. This feeling of embarrassment reflects an unwarranted belief that childhood is the only justifiable time to engage in fantasy. The solution lies in thinking of your child and yourself as partners. In a partnership there is no competition; the strength of each party is used to the advantage of both. Your child possesses greater imagination than yourself while you have more developed language, values, and maturity that can be shared. When these strengths are merged, both parties benefit.



How long can I remain interested while at play?

A casual observer will notice that going shopping with parents does not have much appeal to young children. Usually children ask to go home well before mother is ready. What boys and girls complain of as "a long time" spent in shopping is recognized by the mother as only a few minutes. However, this attention deficit is reversed during fantasy play. To illustrate, we had 300 culturally diverse families of preschoolers participate in an experiment. As each family arrived at the Parent-Child Center, they were greeted by my assistant and invited them to play together with toys until I could meet with them. They did not know that the duration of their playtime together was being measured. Upon my arrival I said: "It looks like you've been busy while you were waiting. By the way, how long have you been playing?" Most parents guessed that they had played for about 20 minutes even though the actual amount of lapsed time was only 6 minutes.

So, when someone says another person has a short attention span, it depends upon the activity. For many parents this means they can initially expect to play for 10 minutes or less without getting bored or noticeably distracted. Because it is unwise to play beyond the point of personal interest, tell your child, "It's time for me to stop now because I cannot play as long as you can." When you take this approach, you will soon experience greater satisfaction, become less inhibited, and the length of your attention span for pretend play will increase.



How important is my influence during play?

There are unique benefits that come from parent-child play. Children gain a broader perspective than when they play with friends or alone. Whatever play theme children choose, parents can help them enlarge vocabulary by introducing and defining new words in context. The more words boys and girls understand because of play and televiewing experiences, the greater their comprehension when they begin reading. Plan to play at times when you are energetic and insightful rather than when you are intolerant and fatigued. Sometimes tired adults read to a child supposing the effort will support literacy. But reading in a monotone voice does not offer much benefit. In contrast, if you express emotion while reading, then enthusiasm for spending time with books is the likely result.

Much of what children learn before they attend the elementary grades come through guessing, questioning, and playing. These activities fit most definitions of the creative process. Because children prefer to use imagination, our first concern should be to preserve this important asset. I am pleased that Japan and Taiwan have decided to assign high priority to creativity. This decision will enrich both countries. Creativity develops when family members encourage it by valuing play and joining the children as play partners. Youngsters often base self-esteem on the amount of family involvement in things they like to do. It is not surprising that parents who are most willing to participate in play are the ones who establish closer relationships with children.



How can I support my child's self-esteem while we play?

Several of our experiments offer clues about the ways in which parent-child play contributes to the sense of power on which early self-esteem can be built. We discovered that children need opportunities for sharing dominance with adults. To understand this need, think about the kinds of games you like most. Usually adults prefer a close game, one in which the outcome remains in doubt until near the end. In contrast, if a football team defeats another by a score of 40-0, spectators may be heard to say that what they saw was not really a game at all. By this they mean the imbalance of power eliminated the uncertainty and consequent excitement about who would win the game. The draft procedure used in American professional sports was established to ensure that more than one team in the league would have access to power, or else there would be no competition and the fans would not come to watch.

Parents experience a similar motive when they try to play games with young children. The adults are too competent for the children to win. Thus, during a game of checkers, when the child starts to complain, threatens to quit, or appears on the verge of crying, grownups must decide what to do. Often they cheat in favor of their young opponent, perhaps moving a checker in such a way that the child can double jump them. This is not an attempt to teach a child dishonesty; it is an effort to convey a temporary sense of power. But it is an inappropriate method. There is a better way to respect boys and girls, by becoming involved with imaginative play where their strength surpasses our own.

We should realize that a child's need for power and consequent self-assertion has a place in adult-child play. Many adults can play with children for only a short period, because they can't stand being dominated for a long time. The same reason describes why some children cannot tolerate certain classes at school. The child who is continually dominated, no matter how kindly, will cease in some measure to grow because his power needs remain unexpressed and unsatisfied. Identity requires self-assertion - yet when children assert themselves with playmates, the usual sequence is adult intervention, reprimand, and guilt. By contrast, when preschoolers play with parents, they do not feel guilty about assertion. Instead, the typical consequence of child assertion during parent-child play is parent concession.

When we ask 4-year-olds who they prefer to play with -agemates or parents- they almost choose parents. The reason they give is "Then I can be the boss." The power possibility also may explain why preschoolers prefer to play alone with the parent rather than include a sibling. Older siblings are less accepting of dominance by younger brothers and sisters because they have a more narrow scope of power than their parents. In other words, the fact that preschoolers choose a less competent partner like a parent to a more competent one like a peer or sibling suggests that a desire for play with parents is partly to redress imbalance of interpersonal power.



Should I praise my child during play?

Children seek recognition but it is less for praise than acceptance. Because the person who is accepted can remain who s/he is without risking a loss of affection, they do not have to change their behavior to continue being valued. In this way acceptance is the greatest reward we can offer children for they can retain their imagination into adult life. Although praise is well intended, it is often used to shape behavior in ways that deflect a child from normal development. Normal development would be the continuation rather than a decline of creativity. If praise sustained creative behavior, schools would not influence its decline because most teachers devote a considerable effort to praising students. But it is when we want to develop initiative, creativity and problem solving that praise fails us most. To liberate these qualities in people, we need to rely upon internal motivation, help people feel they are free of our control.

Any serious observer will notice that children experience the intrinsic satisfaction of play so they do not praise one another. Certainly they may try to control playmates and playthings but praise is not their tool. On the other hand, adults who use praise seem oblivious to play satisfaction and insist upon acting as judges whose function is to verbally reinforce selected behaviors. If parents found pleasure in play they would not have difficulty maintaining their own attention for the activity. When someone finds play boring or disappointing, it usually shows up in terms of a short attention span and use of praise as an extraneous reward system.

Because praising adults are easily distracted from play, they often lapse into a pattern of near constant superlatives. Consider four-year-old Darin who was playing a submarine theme with Jill, the grownup partner. When Darin announced that they were coming close to an island where the monsters live, Jill replied: "O.K., you keep watching the controls." Almost immediately Darin exclaimed, "Oh, oh, we're out of gas." Without delay Jill said: "Good, keep going." Darin, who was the only person involved in this play theme then declared, "Good, what do you mean good?" Many children at play could ask Darin's question of their distracted parent partners who substitute praise for involvement, who use praise as an excuse for not investing attention or time.

Adults commonly rely on praise as a substitute for spending time with the children. But giving a child direct attention is a higher form of reward. Suppose a child comes to you with a picture that he is coloring. You are busy so you say: "That's a wonderful job." Or, "that's great." Or, "I like it better than the one you did before dinner. " He soon returns to demonstrate his next product and solicit your praise. Change the strategy by sitting down and watching him while he colors. Now he knows that what is doing is important enough to warrant your attention so he no longer has a need to seek praise. During early childhood, it is not just listening to youngsters that matters. Observation can also have a great effect by reinforcing what you consider to be most important. Hopefully, that includes an expression of imagination.

People who become dependent upon praise must look outside themselves for confidence so they remain incapable of judging their own behavior. The need for undue praise happens most often in families where the adults impose inappropriate expectations. For example, parent who pressure four year olds to read usually find it necessary to praise them more often. The unintended result is that the child becomes over reliant on praise to persevere. When my son, Paris, was a second grader he asked me: "Dad, how come I was good at football right away? I told him "I think it was because we started to play catch with the ball when you were six instead of four." He was incompetent at age four which would have required frequent praise to remain involved with football or reading. To support a favorable self esteem without also incurring the high cost of being dependent on continual praise, it is important to emphasize the main motive and strength of most preschoolers. That strength is imagination and is always expressed through play. Watch children play and you can confirm that they do not praise one another. Praise discourages independence in favor of constant feedback, something that cannot be attained when people become involved with long term and difficult tasks.



How can I encourage creative abilities in my children?

Research has demonstrated that the most important factor that distinguishes creative children from less creative peers is family support for imagination. Play is the method most children prefer to express their imaginations. So parents are urged to watch children play. That boys and girls want adults to observe them is clear from their near constant appeal to "see me, look at this, watch how I do it." By watching a child pretend, you communicate approval of this kind of activity and acceptance of creativity. In this environment, boys and girls realize that they do not have to change what they are doing to get your attention. They must feel that creative play is worthwhile for you to bother watching before they can conclude that the ability to pretend is important enough to retain. More of us must learn to value the qualities in children we want them to keep beyond childhood.

Parents are quickly distracted when they watch a 4-year-old play. Is it because we do not know what to look for, what to find pleasing, how to identify success, what to say about a form of play that has no rules, no hits, no runs, and cannot be scored? Why is it that my wife Shirley and I could invite friends to see our 10-year-old son Steve participate in a hockey game, but if we asked them to watch our younger son, 4-year-old Paris at play, they would decline and ask "Why? Does he have a special trick?". Whatever prevents adults from becoming regular observers of little children pretending should be revised if we seek to nurture creative thinking.

It is one thing to lack the power to pretend and quite another to reject that power in someone else. This has been made clear from our many observations of 4- and 5-year-olds during play with their parents. When Greg wanted to drive his toy truck to Africa and join a safari, his father did not react with enthusiasm. Instead, he dismissed the venture by reminding Greg that Africa is across the ocean and trucks cannot travel by water except when they are put on boats.

A similar discounting of imagination is likely to occur when children identify relationships between toys that adults do not recognize. Steven did not feel that his account of what was happening had to be plausible. But his explanation that a man in a crash between two toy trucks was not hurt because he was wearing a brick coat was immediately dismissed by the parent, who insisted on using this occasion to point out the value of seat belts.

The parent preference for realism and unwillingness to accept divergent thinking combine in Maria's case. Her mother felt compelled to remove a policeman from a group of cowboys because "He doesn't fit." Maria perceived the matter quite differently and decided to keep the officer in the group. She pointed out that since the fort was already surrounded by Indians, the cowboys needed all the help that they could get and should not turn this person away just because he was dressed differently than the rest of them by wearing a blue suit.



Am I willing to set aside time for play?

Some parents seem unable to schedule play. Grandparents often recognize the continual state of fatigue of their sons and daughters and are concerned about it. Parents come home tired or late, and excuse themselves from play until, "some other time." But a child's need for sharing dominance is continuous; it is not a Saturday or Sunday phenomenon. A better plan is to amend the daily schedule so 10 minutes can be devoted to playing together. Recognize some unscheduled play may be necessary as well. Occasionally almost every child will make demands or give other clues that a bit of extra attention is needed. In such cases, a few minutes of play may help avoid unnecessary frustration. Successful parents have in common an attitude that the members of their family always come first.



How worthwhile am I as a model for leisure?

People have greater leisure today than did past generations. There are more holidays, longer vacations, and a much longer duration for retirement. Children need to know what adults enjoy doing when they do not have to work. Yet, parents who over-schedule themselves and their children indicate "I'm sacrificing my free time to make extra money so you can have special things." They overlook the fact that sharing moments together is more valuable than the things adults can give to children. Certainly happiness is one of our most elusive goals. When parents provide a model for how to attain satisfaction, children are rich if not affluent beneficiaries. But, if we refuse to pursue pleasure in the presence of our children, we are unable to convey how to find satisfaction or attain happiness. It is possible to provide a good example of how to work hard while failing to present children with a model of how to enjoy life.



How important is it to spend time together?

Successful families are characterized by common strengths, one of which is spending time together. The reason time is crucial is because it impacts on all the other traits of a healthy family. Communication, learning, and emotional support are bound to decline when a family loses control of how it spends time. This is why 70% of Americans express the desire to be with children more than is their present pattern. When asked to describe their greatest difficulties in raising children, 83% of parents say it is being too busy and not having enough time. Fathers admit to having greater difficulty in the realm than mothers. Parents believe child development requires that families spend more time together in the present unsafe world than previously when there were fewer choices and greater agreement united the mostly adult sources who boys and girls looked to for guidance.

Working longer hours is usually intended to increase family affluence. But it also has the effect of making parents less available. A related consequence is that some parents are perpetually tired so they cannot contribute much in the moments they are with children. Instead of giving daughters and sons the best moments when they have the greatest energy and insight, these parents offer children the time that is second best as shown by their admission of fatigue. Other parents rationalize that the periods when they are with children is quality time. However, quality time is any time boys and girls need parents rather than when parents can fit them into their busy schedule. Most parents need a better sense of balance so their investment of time is an accurate reflection of their priorities.

Researchers who study parental competence usually emphasize differences in socioeconomic status and formal education. It is assumed that advantages in bringing up children are closely related to these characteristics. In my opinion, this approach is too narrow and in need of revision. Accordingly, the collaborative studies that I have conducted with culturally diverse parents in the United States, China, and Japan include the influence of an additional factor which can be directly manipulated in ways that more fixed socioeconomic traits cannot. For each of these populations, my colleagues and I have discovered that differences in child access to parents' time is a much more influential factor than family income or education level of parents in child and adult perceptions about parent success. Mothers and fathers who invest more time with children know them better so they are more able to offer relevant advice than parents devoting less time. In addition, parents who make themselves available are more often sought out by children for advice. Having an excessive work schedule is seen by some adults as a sign of their importance and status. However, when parents are too busy for children, their influence and success are limited to the workplace.

To sum up, play is the dominant activity of preschoolers, their favorite way of learning. Parents should make an effort to pretend with young children. Some adults regard fantasy practice as an unimportant activity that is only suitable for children. The fact is imaginative play can contribute to creativity and mental health at every age. We are accustomed to having adult models in most sectors of life but children are the best models for learning how to play. The conclusion for parents might be stated as a recommendation: Don't be embarrassed about your relative inability to play. Be embarrassed about your reluctance to participate and to learn. Better yet, get down on your knees--- and play.



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