One of the hot toys for Christmas this year is the Leappad explorer tablet. It is an Ipad like device made for children ages 4-9. The leappad is marketed as an educational toy, meant to help children learn while having fun. The educational toy market has exploded over the last decade. Parents can walk down any aisle of the local toy store and find numerous toys claiming to increase learning in children.
I have never been a big fan of educational toys. I am particularly wary of educational toys that take a video game, or computer like device and attempt to infuse it with educational material. It is not that I don’t believe that children can learn from these devices. I am just not convinced that these devices will teach my children more important lessons than other less technologically driven toys.
The national toy hall of fame has been inducting toys into its hall since 1998. Some of the inductees are the jump rope, jig saw puzzle, alphabet blocks, the ball, and the cardboard box. Now these are educational toys! These classic toys will not teach your children facts or figures that are helpful for them at school. However, they will teach them the social, problem solving, and critical thinking skills that will make them successful in relationships.
I think todays new educational toys prey on a parents desire to help their child achieve “the American dream”. They tell us that without this educational tool our children will fall behind and never be able to compete in the world economy. They tell us that the most important thing to learn is academic. I believe however that the most important things for our children to learn are relational. The relational skills developed when playing with interactive classic toys will help them to be truly successful. They will learn the skills necessary to be good friends, parents, and citizens.
(in the spirit of full disclosure. My boys do have a leapster 2. Sometimes they prefer the cardboard boxes.)
What is your child’s favorite toy? Maybe it’s a video game, hot wheels car, dump truck, cardboard box or YOU. I would guess that you are their favorite toy hands down. If you were to have them choose between playing some sort of interactive fun game with you or any one of their toys, I think they would choose YOU.
Authors Howard Glasser and Jennifer Easley agree that parents are the most exciting playthings available for their children. They imagine that even the most elaborate, bright colored, and well-designed toys cannot compete with the millions of different responses that parents are capable of making. A child can press 10 buttons on a toy and the toy will make a few different sounds. Maybe it will play some music and some different colored lights will turn on. But a parent’s buttons if pushed in just the right manner can elicit a wonderful variety of responses full of varied emotion, volume, body language, facial expression, and vocabulary.
The difficult part for parents is that we tend to provide a more exciting and interesting response to our children when they are doing something wrong. We use very sharp tones, and increased volume when correcting misbehavior. We speak quickly and energetically when they are dawdling around getting ready for school. We spend lots of time lecturing about why “such and such” was a bad choice, and why we must follow the rules. How excited do we get when they do something desirable? Usually our responses to the desired behaviors are much more reserved. Maybe we give a “thank you” for putting the dish on the counter, or possibly a “way to go” when they are ready for school on time. If they are lucky they might get a “high five” and a “way to go” for picking up their toys.
The very important question is, at what times do you provide the most energy to your child? When are you most animated in your responses, when he is doing right or wrong? Some parents get stuck in a rut of only providing feedback when their children are misbehaving. But noticing when a child is behaving in a desirable manner and then responding with energy, excitement, and joy is a very powerful tool. This tool can be used to encourage honesty, kindness, sharing, helpfulness, listening, impulse control, and many other desirable traits.
I challenge parents to intentionally spend more energy celebrating their children’s successes than disciplining mistakes. As you begin to celebrate positive behavior your children will begin to display more of that behavior. Children are very good at learning which buttons get the most exciting responses from their parents. The more exciting response they get, the more they will push the button. Be sure that your buttons are programmed for celebrating successes rather than failures.
“Encourage the young men to be self-controlled. In everything set them an example by doing what is good.” Titus 2:6
A mom I know told me the story of a recent day in her household. It was a day that all parents of boys experience periodically. They seemed to wake-up with more energy than normal, from the moment the day began all three of her boys were moving at break neck speed. She ushered them through breakfast, clothes, brushing teeth, combing hair, packing bags, and off to school. As she ran her daily errands she thought, “The afternoon would be better”. This being the first frigidly cold day of the year, the normal afternoon spent outside running off energy was not an option. So, as the boys returned home from school and finished their snack, things were not looking up. There continued to be a sense of craziness in their behavior. Kids were running and screaming, toys were being thrown, doors slammed, and mom was getting frazzled. Mom, and the boys, were getting out of control.
Mom took a few deep breaths, put aside the things she “needed to get done” and created a game. “Come here boys, and stand in a line” she said. “Run up the stairs!” “Slide down the stairs!” “Skip through the kitchen!” “5 jumping jacks!” “Crab walk around the table!” “5 sit-ups!” “Up the stairs again!” All three boys eagerly completed each set of instructions, laughing and giggling their way back to the living room for the next plan of action. Finally, mom lined the boys up in front of her. Bringing her voice to a calm whisper she said, “Now, go down stairs and play, while I get dinner started.” The boys played alone for 30 minutes and for another hour with mom close by and involved.
I was inspired by this mother’s creativity. Rather than being overwhelmed with the emotion and stress of the situation, she was able to create an experience of self-control. I was struck by 4 things that enabled her to move her boys from being out of control to self-control.
This mom fought the urge to become angry, overwhelmed, or frustrated. She was able to maintain her self-control and acted as an excellent example to her boys by “doing what was good.” As she put aside the things she “needed to get done” she was able to reduce the stress caused by daily concerns. She gave herself a time-out, taking a few calming breaths before deciding how to handle the situation.
When boys are experiencing high levels of energy, their behavior can become chaotic. This mother recognized that the problem was not the level of energy but its focus. She provided a focus for their energy at a time when they were struggling to do it on their own. Her focus, helped the boys experience their high energy as a positive rather than a negative.
Matched Energy Level:
This mom was attuned to what her boys needed. They needed a chance to burn off some energy. It would take more than a “no” to harness these horses. She met their high level of energy with an equally high-energy alternative. The need of the parent is to have the children play quietly while dinner is prepared. She was wise in realizing that they needed help getting prepared for that quieter play.
Being playful may be the most difficult part of what this mom did. Sometimes the first response of a parent is to shut down this type of play. It is too loud, makes a mess, or someone may get hurt. She spoke firm instructions in a playful tone. She took an unwanted behavior and made a wonderfully enjoyable game out of it. Sometimes when a parent joins the chaos setting playful and engaging structure, high-energy play can be a lot of fun.
Now, here is the tough part. If this mom tried this same thing the next day it may not work. The point in my opinion is to remember the 4 principles. Stay calm, Provide structure, Match energy level, and Be playful. Keeping these things in mind could be helpful for parents in managing any type of behavior. They can be especially helpful when bringing boys from out of control to self-control.
We played a rousing game of hide ‘N’ seek at our house the other day. The best part about this game for me is how the kids respond to being found. As I begin to count they all run away squealing and laughing. They find their spot to hide and wait. I start to walk around the house saying loudly. “Where are my boys?” “I can’t find them, I wonder where they are?” “Oh, no where could they have gone”. I look in the place next to where they are, and act surprised when I can’t find them. All the while they giggle, whisper, and fidget fighting to contain their desire to call out, “I’m over here”. If I take too long to find them they begin to make silly noises, knock on the wall, or laugh louder to give me hints as to their location. When I finally find them they cannot contain their excitement. They jump out of the hiding place yelling “surprise!” with a delighted and joyous scream. I make a shocked face, and hug them as though it had been days since we had seen one another.
Oh how wonderful it is to be discovered, to be lost, to be searched after, and to be found. I wonder what goes through their minds while they are hiding? Do they ask questions like, “will he remember me?” “Do they miss me?” or “Do they love me?” I believe that children do ask these questions. I believe that in some small way hide and seek is a grand roleplay of the longing of every child’s heart. The longing to have the hidden parts of themselves searched for and discovered by the adults in their life. As parents find the hidden treasures within your children, then they discover these treasures in themselves. Without the process of being discovered they may never uncover the gifts that are buried within. As I experience my child, so they experience themselves.
I was born in a small midwestern town and lived in that town until my family moved to Southern California when I was in fourth grade. I have very fond memories of playing outside with the neighborhood kids for hours at a time. I remember games like ghost in the graveyard, annie annie over, and freeze tag. I even remember walking down the road with my friend to fish in the pond that was located in the corn field adjacent to our subdivision. I returned to visit that same small town several years ago for a friend’s wedding and drove through the old neighborhood. I expected to see kids running through the neighbor’s back yards and to walk down to the pond in which I had caught my first fish. I was surprised that the pond was no longer there, as the field had been developed for houses. More disappointing was the emptiness of the street. There were no kids outside playing with one another. Have all the young kids grown up? Are there no kids left in this neighborhood?
Several years after this visit when I was working as a therapist for teenagers, I began to get a better understanding of what happened to this neighborhood. I was talking to a young man and I asked him what he was good at. He thought for a little while and said, “video games”. I said, “oh cool, what are some other things you are good at?” He thought for bit longer this time, and said, “I am only good at video games.” I was pretty shocked by his belief that he was only good at video games. He was well liked among his peers, intelligent, handsome, and physically fit. Yet, the only strength he could come up with was video games. Since those first days as a counselor I have run into many other young men with a similar view of self.
I believe that this limited view of self is caused in part by the decrease in outdoor free play for many children today. A 2004 study by Rhonda Clements at Hofstra University surveyed 830 mothers regarding their level of outdoor play as children and that of their children. 85 percent of the mothers agreed that children today play outside less than children did in years past. 70 percent of the mothers reported playing outside everyday as a child compared to only 31 percent of their children. The survey found that the number of children playing games with child created rules has dropped from 85 percent of the mothers to 33 percent of their children. The only outdoor activity that children in the survey did more than their mothers was adult organized youth sports.
I strongly believe that children, especially boys need to be outside engaging in child created play. The three main benefits that I see from this type of play are self-confidence, imagination, and social skills.
There is no better place for a child to test the limits of their abilities than the outdoors. This could be climbing the ladder to the slide for a young child, making it all the way across the monkey bars for a school aged child, or taking on the older kids in a basketball game for a middle schooler. These activities are physical, mental, and psychological challenges that push a child just one small step past their current ability. These small steps over a number of months or years build into a series of successes or failures that allow children to take on the challenges of the future.
The great outdoors is filled with opportunity to increase imagination. This may include the hiding place under the porch stairs used to dig for treasure. The snake habitat made from a puddle, grass clippings, and rocks, or the delicious mud pies served up to mom and dad. These child created exercises in make believe are the classroom in which future artists, teachers, engineers, and, doctors hone their skills. The skills necessary to create new masterpieces, work with the difficult learner, create a bridge or heal disease.
Possibly the most important benefit of child created outdoor play are the lessons of how to get a long with others. Children will argue forever about the rules of a game before it ever begins. They may even stop in the middle of the game to renegotiate expectations. The temptation as parents is to stop the bickering, and make the rules for them so they can get on with the play. Remember though, that the bickering is the point. The most social learning is taking place during the negotiation. This is when they are learning to communicate, take turns, and accept another’s point of view.
Sometimes it seems like we must do more, more, and more for our kids. I propose you do less. Cut out a sport or two, scale down the lessons, and stay home a few nights a week while the kids create a world of play in your back yard. We could call it the “occupy my street” movement. Sounds fun!!
When my son was 3 he did something incredibly cute. That is what my wife and I thought at least. We were all playing in the basement enjoying a Saturday. He began to collect all of the stuffed animals and line them up a long the wall. When they were all arranged in their places he proceeded to make his finger into the shape of a gun and shoot each one “firing squad style”. We had no real or play guns in the house, He had never played nor seen a first person shooter video game, and we were not in the habit of allowing him to watch violent movies. So, being young parents that thought their child was the cutest we played along.
A few days later my wife was at a moms group and told what she thought was the humorous story of a young boys vivid imagination. A number of the moms in the group responded with knowing looks that said, “Ahh my sons have done similar things.” One mom however was appalled. She did not find the story funny, let a lone cute and she did not believe that boys should be pretending in such ways.
My wife of course came home and told me of her experience. We discussed the concerns raised by this mom as well as some thoughts we had about aggression in boys. We wanted him to be kind and to learn to be responsible with guns. In the years following we have never purchased any toy guns for our boys. We have not discouraged the inevitable peanut butter sandwich gun, or the stick made to look like a rifle, but we have never played war….until two weeks ago. That is when I discovered the 2008 Article “Gun Play” by Jay Mechling in which he makes the argument that, “against the intuition of vast numbers of parents and other adults, play with guns is not only not bad for boys but actually has some benefits.”
Mechling describes the benefits of a “play frame” and surprisingly, pretending to die.
The “play frame” is a concept developed by Researcher Gregory Bateson in his article, “A Theory of Play and Fantasy”. The theory proposes that when in play it is understood by all the players that actions, words, and signals that occur within this context do not have the same meaning as they would outside of the play context. So, a boy can run by his best friend while playing cops and robbers and yell, “I am going to shoot you dead” both understanding that they are friends and have no intention of hurting one another. I see this quite regularly with my sons when we wrestle. They speak in faux deep voices and make faces of anger and aggression, that have a meaning of I am strong, and I am powerful. Although very physical in nature it is not a truly aggressive stance towards me. The benefit of this play is learning the difference between real life and fantasy.
Mechling also describes the benefits of pretending to die. He believes (and I agree) that pretending to die is a way for children to work through the real fears they have about death, injury, and being abandoned. Pretending to die and coming back to life allows children to act out over and over again the real life drama of being protected by someone more powerful than they. When our boys pretend to die and we play sadness, hurt, and loss I am teaching them about how much they mean to us. When they pretend to die and we run to tend their wounds they learn that we will keep them safe.
I had another epic gun battle with my boys today. We fought against the bad guys lurking in our living room. Upon returning to the kitchen after the war (where mom was making lunch) we marched in a ticker tape parade. I pinned pretend medals of honor on all three of them. I looked them in the eye and said, “for your honor, courage, and bravery in the fight against bad guys. “