I recently went to an RIE seminar on play. I walked into the room and saw it beautifully arranged with toys everywhere. I’m not going to lie- after having spent the day playing with my daughter, I wasn’t very happy about the idea of spending more time on the floor playing with children’s toys. It took everything I had not to exhale a sigh of slight annoyance as the leaders of the seminar invited us, a room full of adults, to start playing. We dispersed and got to work. I found a basket of spinning tops with many different covers. They didn’t all fit together, so it was a bit of a puzzle for me to work out which ones went with which. One of the leaders came over. She kindly and enthusiastically said, “Wow, cool! Tops! Here, this cover goes with this one.” As she sat down next to me, she began matching the tops with the spinners and spinning them. After a minute or two of doing this together, she got up and went to another woman who was building a block tower. “Oh wow! Look at how high your tower is! Great job!” she said.
And on and on the leaders went, sitting down and playing with each adult for a few minutes. After the exercise was over, we were invited to sit together, reflect, and share. “After you came over and showed me how the tops worked, they didn’t feel as interesting anymore. I stopped trying to figure them out on my own and preferred to watch you do it. After you left, I didn’t really feel like playing with them at all anymore.” The tower lady said, “Initially I felt a bit embarrassed to be praised like that. I wasn’t building it for attention. But what really surprised me was how, after being praised for it, I was hesitant to keep adding to it. I worried it wouldn’t be perfect anymore. What if I added another block and the whole thing collapsed?” Another participant, who was trying to build a fence out of puzzle pieces, said how annoyed she was with the leaders involvement. “When you told me what the puzzle was ‘supposed’ to be for, I thought to myself, ya, duh. But I don’t want to do that right now. I didn’t care about how the toy was meant to be played with, I was trying something else out.”
At the end of the discussion, we were invited to play again. I expected the leaders to take our feedback into consideration, and interact with us accordingly. For the next 15 minutes we busied ourselves with the toys again. The leaders sat on the floor nearby, but, they didn’t say one word. Not one! I made eye contact with them a few times, and they simply smiled at me. I went back to my “work”. I only played with one toy this time, but I was surprised when the time was over.
The point we took home with us was this: we do not always have to actively engage with our children to bond with them. In fact, it can be so easy to ‘take over’ our children’s play, rather than following their lead. Simply sitting nearby, observing them, offering a smile when they make eye contact, might be all the connection your child needs during play. “It is a profoundly validating experience for children to be able to hold our interest without having to ask or work for it.” (Janet Lansbury). This was an eye-opening experience for me, one that I try to refer back to when I feel pressure to play with Liv because I think I should bond with her. Instead, I stop and ask myself, “Is this her need, or mine?”
More often than not, it’s my need I’ve mistakenly taken for hers. I hold myself back from interrupting her work, and gift her the freedom to play in peace.