On overly guided play

It’s been a while since my last post, and that’s mostly because my mind has been somewhere else lately. It’s hard to focus on multiple things at the same time; I’m constantly amazed by other parents being able to multitask. When I’m focusing on something, I have to block out everything else while I think about it.

But lately something has been nagging at me and I need to write about it. Writing helps me clear my head and work through my thoughts about things, and this issue has been coming up repeatedly over the last month or two.

The issue is that people are being a bit too “helpful” when it comes to my kids’ play and learning.

Now, on its surface, that sounds like a good thing, but hear me out.

It really bothers me. There are so many examples of this but I’ll focus on a couple that have stood out to me most recently: guided crafts, and rushing physical development.

Guided crafts

Pippin's first ever painting, done at the Early Years Centre
Pippin’s creative painting

Pippin and I love art — drawing, painting, making sculptures, gluing things together… I love watching her use her imagination and create something that no one else in the world would ever consider to create. When she was about 15 months old, she made a painting by covering an entire page with paint using rollers, and then using her fingers to remove the paint. It looked like graffiti. It was so cool that I framed it to display at home. But the main thing is that she did it all by herself, with no instruction whatsoever.

Every now and then, we come across a playgroup that has a guided crafts activity. I don’t understand the purpose behind these and if someone can explain, I would love to listen. To me, all it does is stifle creativity.

What I see at these crafts tables are children not doing crafts — rather, it’s the parents cutting and gluing and making things look “oh, so cute.” Then they write their child’s name on it, and say, “wow, look at what you made!”

What message does this send to a toddler? That her effort is not good enough? That a simple activity that’s supposed to be for a child is so out of her league that her mom or dad has to step in and pretty much do it for her?

One of the facilitators at my local Early Years Centre mentioned that she has seen children entering kindergarten who, when it’s time for art activities, completely freeze. The teacher provides paper and drawing materials and asks them to draw a picture, and these kids don’t know what to do — “what do you mean, just draw? Tell me what to do.” They either haven’t learned how to use their imagination or they have had so many creative moments stolen from them that they have forgotten.

Why do we even need these guided crafts? What is the purpose in having 15 children all go home with exactly the same product? Why not just have a variety of accessible materials, and allow children to decide what they want to do and how they want to do it?

Personally, I’m amazed at the things Pippin produces when left to her own devices. I might have intervened that time that she slathered paint all over her paper (mixing purple with yellow, by the way, which created a surprisingly beautiful effect). I might have said, “no, Pippin, that’s too much paint. It’s too thick and won’t dry. Let’s just paint like this,” and I might have then demonstrated the “normal” way to use a paint brush.

But had I done that, I would never have seen her original ideas, the vision she had when she started painting. I would have ended up with just another boring painting, and a child that has learned that “mom knows best.”

Rushing physical development

We are never satisfied with what we have, and this is especially true when it comes to child development. We have a baby that contentedly lies on her back and stares curiously out the window, but we want a baby that can roll over. When we have a baby that can roll over, we want a baby that can sit. Then we want her to crawl. Then walk. Then run. We always want more.

What’s wrong with appreciating what we have? Why, if a baby has just mastered rolling, do we not let her enjoy her new ability and feel proud of herself? Let her roll around all day long if she wants. But no, we want to prop her up in a sitting position and see how long she can stay there before falling over. We feel pressure to “teach” babies to sit, stand, or walk, before they’re able to do it independently.

This has become so ingrained in our mainstream parenting culture that most people never think twice about it, but it’s actually unsafe and bad for their development!

Overall, we as the well-meaning adults in a child’s life have a frustrating tendency to help a bit too much.

But childhood is a carefree time that kids need in order to discover themselves and build confidence in their own ideas and abilities. If we rush in to save the day at the first sign of trouble, they will be deprived of these important lessons.

Childhood is, after all, simultaneously playground and classroom, where absolutely everything is a learning experience. Let’s not give away all the answers.

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