Maurice Sendak’s book is a wonderful antidote to the affliction sometimes referred to as the commercialization of parenting! That’s because we adults tend to turn every escape-filled childhood moment into a learning opportunity or a signal to enroll our child for class (as in, “I see you like to wear a tutu; why don’t we sign you up for ballet?”).
That urge of opportunity was hard for me to resist when my children were little, as I saw every opening as a window on the world for them. Years later, after I began working with child development experts, I had a another outlook: play is actually the work of childhood. Fred Rodgers said it years ago on “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” and research confirms it now. What Mr. Rogers probably didn’t anticipate was that children would have to essentially fight for the right to play. Child-driven play, that is. You know, the stuff of lazy mornings, unstructured recreation, and quiet times.
It’s been 40 years since Max first cried, “Let the wild rumpus start!” and his imaginative journey began to where the wild things are. You can be sure that he developed some competencies when he donned his wolf suit in pursuit of mischief and wound up being sent to his room without dinner. Lucky for him, though, a forest grew in his bedroom, allowing his wild rampage to continue uninterrupted. The wild things, one book reviewer said, actually float between the land of dreams and a child’s imagination. This whimsical story underscores Max’s ability to relish every moment — and to build his resilience along the way when he ultimately acknowledges his own place in the real world.
“Where the Wild Things Are” will undoubtedly inspire creative play when read. Here’s the tricky part though: there is no place for parents in this fantasy world. Because when Mom or Dad enters the realm of child’s play, that play becomes future-focused and adult-oriented. I propose that we need to let children explore their own interests, and we need to free them from being victims of over-scheduling. (If you want a litmus test, over-programming is manifested in physical symptoms or behavioral acting out, according to Dr. David Elkind, author of “The Hurried Child” and “The Power of Play.”)
Be careful not to turn play time into work time. In the process, you’ll also free yourself – from driving all over town after an exhausting day to get to break-dance class or magic instruction – reaching, instead, the land of more lighthearted parenting. It’s easier to avoid hyper-parenting if you understand the ramifications of committing this otherwise fitting transgression.
Dr. Ed Hallowell defines play as “the source of lifelong joys.” He explains, “By play, I mean any activity in which there is room for spontaneous invention and/or change… the opposite of play is doing exactly what you are told to do.” He deduces, “Play deserves more respect than it gets.” In fact, the psychiatrist believes that play is one of the five components of adult happiness (more on this in a future post!).
And just in case you think that by encouraging play you could be stifling future brilliance, Dr. Hallowell concludes, “If there is any better way to strengthen a brain, or to feed the spirit, than to play, I don’t know what it is…. The skill of play, of being able to make creative use of time no matter where you are or what you are doing, is the skill that lies behind all discoveries, all advances, all creative activity.”
Did you know, for example, that Mozart wrote a symphony at age 8, but no one taught him how. It was his innate giftedness, not a mentor, that is credited for his genius. Mozart’s extra-curricular activities weren’t directed; he had lots of discretionary time during which to experiment on the keyboard. And we can be pretty certain that his mother didn’t take him for piano lessons! (In fact, the experts tell us that three after-school activities are more than sufficient to stimulate a child and still leave time for spontaneous, self-initiated play.)
Mozart is just one of many musicians, Nobel prize winners, inventors, and other creative whiz kids who were adept at play during their childhoods. Dr. Elkind calls it “the power of play.” Does this perspective resonate with you, even though it is counter-intuitive? Please start the conversation below by commenting- it’s an important one.