toddler painting

The Mercury of Play.

Mr. Magpie and I recently re-watched John Hughes’ excellent movie Uncle Buck. There is a hilarious and moving scene in which John Candy, playing the rough-around-the-edges family outcast temporarily charged with the care of his nephew and nieces, is called into the principal’s office. The cantankerous headmistress snarls:

“I see a bad egg when I look at your neice. She is a twiddler, a dreamer, a silly heart, and she is a jabberbox. And frankly I don’t think she takes a thing in her life or in her career as a student seriously.”

John Candy replies: “She’s only six. I don’t want to know a six-year-old who isn’t a dreamer or a silly heart. And I sure don’t want to know one who takes their student career seriously.”

A few days later, I was walking to the garage en route to school — me in my mildly harried state, running through mental checklists, patting my pocket for mask and keys — when mini paused at the landing to pick up a stray piece of sidewalk chalk and draw her name onto the flagstone. There is so little give in our morning routine, I had to bite my tongue to prevent myself from instinctively issuing a cease-and-desist order. Here is my silly heart, I thought, grateful to Uncle Buck for the intercession.

Sometimes my children are a great reminder of the beauty of the impromptu. They reassure me that it is OK to be distracted and enchanted by opportunity, to chase the artistic impulse to its quicksilver ends. Art, like play, resists a plan. It can run amok or glide brook-like along its own grooves. Since the start of the pandemic, I have been an enormous proponent of sensory play in part because it is an urgent admonition on this truth. (And it has doubled as an inexpensive, open-ended, indoor preoccupation for my often-cooped-up children.) I mean this non-disparagingly, because I was once of this camp, but I often have friends and family members puzzle over the sensory bins I put together for my children: “but what do they do with them?” Once, a little girl came by to play and stood in bewilderment over the bin of dyed rice with little wooden scoops and toys nestled inside. “Where are the instructions?” she asked. But after she had been informed that “anything went,” she dug her palms right in and engaged.

Play comes naturally to children. They seem to intuitively grasp that nothing needs to be “finished” or “accomplished.” Imagined cupcakes can become mountains for tiny toys to ascend. A spray of spilled rice becomes lava. Narratives can change tack on a dime with the introduction of new characters or the bubbling-up of recent experiences that express themselves in imaginative play: I often overhear my daughter parroting recent real-life conversations and excursions through the mouthpieces of Legos and Polly Pockets and those tiny plastic animals that are constantly underfoot. Stories need not end tidily. In fact, more often than not, they conclude abruptly, with the shrugging chuck of a stuffed animal onto a couch, deserted in favor of a puzzle, or a book, or that bent slinky that appears to have nine lives. (I have sneakily thrown it into the garbage at least four times. No belonging is safe when the children are preoccupied. Are there any other parents who are routinely chastised for throwing “treasures” into the garbage?)

Somewhere between the age of eight and now, my own instinct for play gave way to a steely focus on schedules, rules, completions. Nearly every minute accounted for. No dangling participles. Never a late fee. Checklists. I am too much a pragmatist to say that this transformation is entirely for the worse. As an adult, I have responsibilities and I take pride in tending to those with care and determination. These things must happen for life to unfold without too much daily turbulence. (Please do not get me started, though, on the agony of dealing with any aspect of healthcare. I have lost weeks of my life sorting through forms, calling insurance companies, seeking the transfer of medical records, scheduling appointments. I swear I spend at least an hour of each week on this category of “home admin” alone. But it is done, and every t is crossed and every i is dotted, because I need my children to receive excellent medical care.)

And yet I stood there and admired my twiddler, my silly heart, lifted by the creative tailwinds of being a four-year-old. I felt pulled in multiple directions. Was it enough to simply stand there, quietly condoning her urge to draw in the face of looming school drop-off? Should I have picked up a piece of chalk myself and drawn along side her? These queries ran against the grain. We are always on time as a family, and this matters to me because my parents and parents-in-law instilled the fear of God in me on this matter, and I am determined to establish the same for my children. It is a respect thing. I have already lost track of the number of times I have told my daughter, “We have to be on time because we made a commitment to be there. X and Y are waiting for us, and it’s the respectful thing to do.” But maybe sometimes it is OK to be late in service of a different message. “No no,” — the practical parenting voice chimed in — “If you do this once, you’ll have to fight a daily battle on this front.” That voice tends to know what’s what, conditioned by years of parenting missteps. I have forgotten mini’s lunch at home all of once in her entire career as a student (two and a half years), and yet mini brings up this episode of oversight close to weekly. “Remember the time you forgot my lunch?” she asks, peering at me. I know enough to realize that this is in some ways an inverted compliment. I am so organized that one omission out of two and a half years is a glaring novelty. But still — something inside insisted that drawing now would tee us up for a string of daily battles on the subject of whether she can “draw one more thing.”

Oh, the thousands of daily internal sagas over matters willowy in certain lights and wooden in others. It can sometimes feel like the daily stuff of parenting is perilously high-stakes, with every gesture and omission and conversation sprouting either tendrils or roots, and you never know which. Will mini remember the time I lost my patience with her while attempting to leave a birthday party or the stretch we spent playing with tiny astronauts floating in islands of bubbles in her bath after?

I started this post reminding myself to make room for the mercury of play, and I am ending it wondering how to accommodate that impulse in the face of real-life exigencies and the titan task of rearing a child who is kind and considerate and happy. Fittingly, then, I have no grand conclusions, just openness to the now-thrilling, now-unnerving carousel of parenthood.

Post-Scripts.

+This post reminded me a bit of the notion of slow parenting.

+And also of mini stopping to check on her carrots.

+Parenting auspiciousness.

+On working through transitions with little ones.

+Time is a thief.

+I still get weepy thinking about all the firsts and lasts of being a new parents.

+In case you’re curious about testing sensory play out, or want to re-stock your art cart with some fun new finds.

Shopping Break.

+Urgent: Target just launched a pair of clog boots startlingly similar to my beloved No 6 pair, but for under $40.

+I have been using this body lotion for years and years. It is an automatic re-buy. I love the fresh scent and consistency. Just gave it to my MIL as one of her birthday gifts!

+This fab dress that sold out in like 2 seconds is back in blue! So chic!

+As you know, I love Little English’s turtlenecks for micro — all of them ship free this week with code TURTLENECK.

+J. Crew has some fun new arrivals — how great are these sherpa clogs and this perfect cableknit cardigan?

+Adorable nursing pillow cover for a baby boy.

+MEEP — these turtleneck bodysuits for your little one!

+This tiered corduroy dress is super chic and unexpected.

+OMG — these look super similar to my Aquazzura powder puff heels, but cost a fraction of the price!

+Nicola Bathie also has some super similar ones in a reasonable price range.

+Just love these taper candle holders.

+Not a part of Net-A-Porter’s epic sale, but this mini is so on-point.

+Into this $35 quilted jacket in the dark green color!

+This embroidered lumbar pillow is absolutely gorgeous.

+This set of six chinoiserie candlesticks is actually a great deal for styling your entire mantle!

+Love the shape of this reasonably-priced fair isle sweater.

+This coat is super cool. Never seen anything quite like it!

+A fabulous striped cardigan for a little boy or girl. I think micro needs this.

+For your fall baking needs.

+Chic lug-sole boots for your stylish mini. Speaking of cute footwear for littles, I find Gap’s shoes to be of dubious quality but if you’re OK with having them worn for a season (and then they’re worn through!), I bought mini these and they are absolutely adorable on her.

+This layered top is SO fun.

+This Patagonia fleece in the taupe/pink color…love.

+Jellycat makes the cutest stuffed animals.

+Adore this boxy striped henley in the navy.

+I love running in loose-fit tops like these paired with leggings.

+I can’t believe this is H&M!

9 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing this! I’m reading “Free to Learn” by Peter Gray and he is totally team let them free play without adult interference so I think he’d salute you for the chalk moment 🙂

    See my thing is, I am not a pragmatist and will go the other direction. Right now, my oldest is two and we have no school so, outside of doctor’s appointments, we almost never have a set time to be anywhere. When meeting friends at the playground, I will give a time range. I need grace at this point in my life more than punctuality.

    I tell myself this is one of the core benefits of being a SAHM so I really try to let him lead. That being said, the other week, he wanted to sit in the passenger seat and poke around before getting into his car seat after the playground.

    No harm in that! I naively thought as I shut him in the car and went about getting his five month old brother in his car seat, putting the stroller away, etc.

    Jen. There was harm in that. Cue two weeks of him refusing to get in his car seat before sitting in the passenger seat, sometimes resulting in full blown parking lot tantrums. We’ve moved on from that now (thankfully) but my husband, a pragmatist, was very: what have you done? Why would you ever let him in the front seat? Etc. etc.

    Oh! It’s so easy to say “always let the kid lead” or “the adult should always be in charge” but I’m finding parenting a much more nuanced dance that defies absolutes.

    1. Hi Joyce – I love these field notes. Thanks for sharing. I so agree that experience has again and again made me realize that there are few categoricals in parenting. For me, it’s all been tinkering and playing around with proportions and never saying never and all that. It sounds like we are on the same page there.

      xx

  2. I guide my approach to playing with my kids by how they ask me. There are many times the kids are happy enough to tinker together, or alone, and I usually remind myself in those moments to sit back and marvel at their curiosity. They eschew the doctor kit in favor of a throw pillow that is now a boat and more than anything I don’t want to get in their way. Yet whenever they end a request with “with me” I always say yes. Can you build these legos with me? Yes. Can you be a snake and slither on the ground in the kitchen with me? Yes. A yes every time they invite me to play, to join their world from their perspective, two feet off of the ground, following their swirling ideas of how best to use that set of blocks, for I want them to remember forever how much I love being their mom.

    1. Hi Elizabeth – Oh, I love this rule of thumb! And you’re making me reflect on how often I say “not now” to requests to play! Thanks for the prompt.

      xx

  3. Along those same lines, I recently encountered an “adventure playground” on Governor’s Island here in NYC and was absolutely entranced by the concept. It basically looks like a junkyard, and parents are not allowed inside- kids only. Trained supervisors keep watch from a distance within, but the whole point is that it’s open-ended, free-form play at its most elemental and basic. A handpainted sign on the fence said “children do not need your advice or guidance at play.” !!! Crazy how radical that feels to say in 2021, isn’t it?

    1. !! This is fascinating. I don’t know if I could let mini go in there by herself, especially in NYC…!!! But it sounds like the kids would have such a fantastic time. Interesting concept.

      xx

    2. The age minimum is 6 years, so she’d be a bit young, but I just loved the concept (which is apparently very popular in Northern Europe). I also loved seeing all the parents hanging out in Adirondack chairs outside the facility, kicking back and having a great time of their own!

  4. Love love love this post! I often bookmark certain posts on motherhood from your blog and this is one to be added to that. I find myself constantly battling “should I let it go just this once but then what if it turns into every day” etc. etc. etc.

    I do want to ask – how do you deal with the mess of the sensory play? Any time I have tried, eventually my 2.5 just flings the rice or whatever everywhere and it drives me crazy haha! I find myself reaching for these less so just bc I want to avoid that inevitable mess and fight to put it away

    1. Hi Rayna! Thank you so much for the compliment, and also for the solidarity. Right there with you on all of this. With regards to the mess of sensory play — I so hear this. I always put down a mat or sheet to help contain the mess — then you can just pick it up by the corners and shake back into the bin. That said, we had some colossal messes with this most recent batch of Halloween dyed rice because my son thought it was funny one morning to start throwing fistfuls around the porch. I will be honest: it really drove me nuts, and I spent a long time sweeping up rice. There are less-messy options, though. Waterplay or soap foam play is good (you can even just plop them with the tub with these things, or do outside), play-doh is fairly easy, and then sometimes it’s not a bad idea to only give them a small dish full of pinto beans, so the possibility of mass chaos is not there. (A full bin of rice is a different story.). I think at the end of the day some of it is a trade-off, i.e., “am I willing to clean this up if/when it goes haywire today?” Some days, my answer is — “Oh God, no! Not today!” Other days, I just roll with it, or am simply determined to make it happen. I’m also realizing that certain ages are better for certain materials. My four-and-a-half year old is tidy and will happily play with rice with close to no mess. My two year old is in a mayhem phase, and I prefer to do soap foam/water with him (easy to mop up with towel) and also know I need to closely monitor his movements.

      Not sure if that helps at all! Probably stating the obvious!

      xx

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