Tools for the important work of play

My son Dante was a Seedling for two years, when he was three and four. The first year, he spent most of his time digging in the dirt or playing in a tub of water. When I’d come to pick him up, he’d be covered from head to toe with mud. Every day, I struggled to clean him off, and I struggled with the idea that I was paying to let my kid make mudpies. I encouraged him to try an art project or maybe to build with blocks, but he wasn’t interested.

Dante as a Little Sprout, age 23 months

I had — and sometimes still have — similar frustrations at home. My boys have lovely, carefully chosen toys and games, but instead of playing with them (or so I thought), they’d dump all the myriad pieces into a box and call it soup. Now it’s just a big mess for me to sort out!

Obviously, I had a hard time wrapping my mind around the idea of child-directed, open-ended play. It took me a long time to realize that, for my three-year-old, dirt  and water were what he needed. Those sensations, that exploration of a tiny slice of the natural world, the solitude of standing in a corner of the playground with a shovel: that was his play.

Putting petals in a pot

Later, his friend Matthew stuck the flowers through some ribbon

Eventually, Dante moved on from his soggy outside days, but on his own schedule.

Dante and Corwin with a wood creation

When his brother became a Seedling last fall, I was ready for the inevitable:

Little brother August is wet

This past Christmas, Dante, now five, asked for a dollhouse. I wasn’t surprised, since he has a collection of little “people” that he often plays with: they talk to one another and work together.

As I began to write this post, I went to see what he was doing. He was in fact playing with the dollhouses (relics of my own childhood, they’re 30+ year old Fisher-Price houses rescued from my parents’ basement). Was he setting up furniture inside, maybe having his people converse? Of course not.

Dante building a machine

Dante was piling up a collection of colorful toys, including his houses, to create a machine. Maybe it’s a machine that will demonstrate how ironic it is that a mom who purposely chooses toys for imaginative, open-ended play — like blocks, a play kitchen and art supplies  — sometimes has a hard time letting her kids decide what to do with them!

© Victoria Green and Sunflower Creative Arts, 2012
Photos © Victoria Green, Jaime Greenberg, Crystal MacLean and Sunflower Creative Arts, 2012