The Enlightenment of Collaborative Play

As Claire grew out of infancy and toddlerhood, it became evident that her rich imagination generated all sorts of stories with many plots. Our playtime changed. Claire has found it difficult to “share the story,” to play with. It isn’t really parallel play either (which is normal for the age). Instead, her play partner has had to play with the characters Claire chooses (she is always the animals and the other person does people dolls), and then she tells her partner exactly what to say, how to say it, and when. She is The Director. And that’s okay — up to a point.

For a long time I let this be so. I figured it was her playtime, and I was content in the beginning to let her drive all the play. The story lines were very repetitive, which is also normal. Periodically I would push back a little, test her boundary, and she would vigorously reject my suggestions and attempts.

My friend Karen says what a child really needs is one hour of a parent’s undivided, nondistracted attention each day, with the child setting the agenda. I did this at first (often longer than that). Months passed; her plots remained rote, and I found her compulsion to control suffocating. For many months I struggled to hang in there the whole hour. I glanced at the clock every so many minutes, dejected that time crawled. I then began to avoid the hour, giving her bits and pieces. Then I began to avoid her; I evaded her, and I dreaded to hear, “Mommy, do you want to play with me?” If I answered yes, I’d only give her a few minutes before fleeing to a chore. Often I’d say no, I had chores to do. I began to feel sad that our relationship had become locked in these rituals. And it occurred to me that Claire was “stuck,” and needed some help moving play to the next level.

Hub and I had been talking to her about the necessity to share the story, to collaborate, and that this is how to make and keep friends. It wasn’t sinking in.

Today she asked if I’d play with her. I sat down on the floor and said, “Claire, I need to tell you something. Can I have your attention, please?” She lay down on the floor at my crossed legs. Then I said, “Claire, a lot of times you ask me to play with you, and I don’t want to. I find chores to do, or I say maybe later. I do this because it really is NO fun to play when you are the one to tells me what to do, how to do it, and when. I feel sad, because I want to have fun with you. But the way you play is not fun.”

Claire replied, “Okay, we can do that. Now you can be the princesses, and I’ll be the animals…” This time I said, “But I don’t want to be princesses. I want to choose my own roles.” She said okay, than handed me two princesses, saying “You can play with the Sleeping Beauties because they match!” I repeated that no, I wanted to pick my own, suggesting we build a zoo with blocks and animals. She continued to try to direct me, and I said, “Right now I’m building a zoo. Why don’t you pick animals to put in?” So she did.

When the zoo was done, I selected a few princesses and a safari guy to be the zookeeper. She was thrilled at the princesses I chose because “These two have buns and those two have long flowing hair — they match! Good job Mommy!” She wanted to tell me what to do with them, and I said if she wanted to be in charge of people she needed to pick some for herself. So she did.

Then she wanted to tell me to move the animals in certain ways, and I pushed back. So she suggested, “Why don’t you control the animals on your side and I’ll do the ones on my side?” Excellent idea! So I had my animals say something, and she responded. Over and over she’d slip into telling me what to do, and I’d say it was my animal to control. I’d encourage her to have her animal do something so I could respond. I did all this in a patient and kind manner.

And you know what? We played for an hour and I never looked at the clock. I had fun! The make-believe play was fluid, original, and created on the spot. I wasn’t doing the same script over and over. I wasn’t carrying out orders. When I had to stop to start dinner, I told her that I’d had so much fun playing this way. I asked if she enjoyed it, and she said yes. And another benefit — when I had to stop playing, she was sated enough to continue the scenario on her own — something she does regularly, but this time I didn’t feel guilty for leaving.

During bath time tonight, she asked, “Do you want to play with me?” I said yes and asked her what she wanted to play with. She told me what squirties she wanted, and then I chose a couple of my own. She wanted to enact a particular plot, and I said I’d go along with part of it, but I wanted to make up my own words for my animals. We spent a fun 20 minutes playing, and I didn’t feel agitated about how bored I felt — because I wasn’t.

I’m going to keep doing this. I told her honestly how I felt, and why I didn’t want to play with her, so we tried a different way, and I helped her get comfortable by gently redirecting her. Imagine that — talking to your child like a real person capable of genuine interaction! It works.

happy girl with kipper
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One Comment on “The Enlightenment of Collaborative Play”

  1. Tanya Says:

    Thank you for sharing this 🙂 I have been doing the same thing with my son lately. It is nice to know one is not alone!