For the most part children lead lives where most decisions are made for them. And often when they do get to make decisions they are the false decisions of parenting, such as which color pajamas they are going to put on. They are still going to end up in pajamas.
Often children are told when to wake up, when to go to bed, what to eat, where they can and can’t play, how long play will last, and for the most part – the rules of rolling through their day. Psychologists and doctors tell us that people experiencing life with an external locus of control – the world always coming at you with the rules of engagement – leads to health problems and stress. Children are people so that rule applies to them. Perhaps especially to them.
Free play, where the child decides the what, where, when and how of play, has the potential to bring a level of balance back into their lives. It provides them with a sense of agency over their life when they can effectively advocate for themselves.
Even playgrounds can signal to a child what they can and can’t do. The fixed equipment of playgrounds such as swings, slides, monkey bars and balance beams signal exactly what you are to do upon them. That’s why many children play on those things for a short period of time before settling down into mulch to play. They have agency over the mulch in a different way than they have agency over a balance beam. Playgrounds that provide loose parts provide more opportunities for children to make decisions, create things, puzzle out solutions to challenges and create their own rules of engagement.
If you ever get the chance to step away from children playing and watch from a distance you will see them gradually take control over their world. They will make up rules for games that never existed before, they will creatively explore the materials available to them, and they will begin to change the way they see themselves and the world around them. You can actually see their movements and attitudes begin to shift. You can start to see them as whole and capable people that don’t really need the direction we may think they do. For many of us, that takes practice. Stepping back is harder than it looks. Especially in a culture that keeps telling us that we are responsible for how our children learn about the world. Children come into the world prepared to discover things for themselves and when we step back just enough for that to happen – you get to see the magic that capable children bring to the world.
Here are five tips for stepping back from your children’s play to allow them more agency:
- Our gut reaction is to lean forward when we think we need to intervene in some situation involving a child’s play. Train yourself to feel your weight shift forward when things are happening on the playground. Often we are responding to our own fears when that happens. Quite often we are not needed at all. In that moment when you feel your weight shift forward take a deep breath and ask yourself whether getting involved is necessary. If not – lean back and take a deep breath.
- Children without experience entertaining themselves will often report “I’m bored.” That’s often because they have learned to be entertained by others. It is not always your job to entertain your children. Give them the space to learn how to do that for themselves, even when that’s difficult, and everyone’s life will get a bit better. It takes practice for both you and your child.
- If your child is struggling with something like how to build something or how to negotiate some kind of social situation – let them struggle. That’s where learning takes place.
- Plan for opportunities within your child’s day where you DON’T involve yourself – when your child can play without supervision.
- Practice saying “yes” to things to which you have habitually said “no.”