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Monday, November 11, 2013

Simplified Play

Winter is fast approaching in Anchorage. The days are gradually getting shorter, darker, and colder. Consequently, I have been doing lots of reading by the fire. There is nothing more comforting to me than curling up in my over sized chair by the hearth and reading a great book, especially when hot chocolate is involved. One book that has really inspired our family to make some swift changes in our life is Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids, by Kim John Payne. I don't usually read parenting books. I've tried a couple and have never made it past the first 50 pages. It seems like good ol' fashioned discipline is out of style these days. This book is different in that it's more of a lifestyle change, like minimalism  for parents. And since I am huge a fan of Joshua Fields and Ryan Nicodemus, I figured a little more simplicity in our lives couldn't hurt. HOLY COW - what a difference this has made! I really enjoy my work as a stay at home mother so much more now and finally find being a part of my toddler's world exciting.

Payne is a Waldorf educator and consultant, thus many of the concepts of this book have their principles in Waldorf education, which emphasizes the imagination and development of the whole child. His book is sort of a simplified version of Rahima Dancy's You Are Your Child's First Teacher, which delves much deeper into Rudolf Steiner's anthroposophic philosophy. Payne's main beef with American culture is this:

"We are building our daily lives, and our families, on the four pillars of too much: too much stuff, too many choices, too much information, and too much speed.  By simplifying, we protect the environment for childhood’s slow, essential unfolding of self."

His chapters cover four levels of simplification: environment, rhythm, schedules, and filtering out the adult world. The chapter that impacted me most profoundly was on environment, specifically concerning toys.

Sophia and I love coloring with Stockmar crayons everyday. 

Ah, toys. As a parent, I both love and hate my daughter's toys. She literally had an entire play room devoted to them, and it seemed even then it was hard to contain them all. It seemed there was always one playing random obnoxious music at any given time, or a meltdown ensuing because the batteries died in another. For some reason, I don't remember toys like that growing up. No longer reserved for special occasions, it seems that toys have now become staples of family life, appropriate as purchases for any day of the year. And they are literally everywhere: the gas station, the grocery store, you name it. And it's not just the sheer quantity of toys that is bothersome, but the quality as well. Modern toys tend to be cheap, mass produced, plastic monstrosities with batteries, blinking lights, and a barrage of sounds. They tend to break easily and overstimulate. We had already reduced TV time, but didn't realize that all our daughter's toys were like a TV. Her toys were so complex, they did so much for her, that the extent of her involvement was merely pushing buttons. They didn't require her to put her imagination into them, to manipulate them in any way. She would become frustrated and bored too easily, which led to tantrums. We were confused. Payne explains where we went wrong:

"When they're not overwhelmed with so many toys, kids can more fully engage with the ones that they have. And when the toy is simpler, children can bring more of themselves to that engagement. There is freedom with less: freedom to attend, engage, and absorb. Toys that don't do things can become anything, in play. When we don't try to fill children's minds and toy chests with prefabricated examples of 'imagination', they have more freedom to forge their own, to bring their own ideas into play."

I think this simplifies our parental roles as well. Payne maintains that as our children gain more time and freedom to deeply explore their worlds, we are liberated from a false sense of responsibility. We don't need to provide the newest in an unending list of toys, we can provide for our children by safeguarding their time and opportunities for open-ended imaginative play. Well, I was sold and very ready to get started. Here is what my husband and I decided to discard:

  • Broken toys. Also, toys that had batteries we had been "meaning to replace" for months.
  • Developmentally inappropriate toys. If it was a toy Sophie could "grow into", we stored it for later. If it was something she had outgrown, it was time to donate it. 
  • Conceptually "fixed" toys. Characters from movies, comic books, or televisions shows leads to a long road of commercial possibilities, with newer products and sequels. They celebrate Hollywood's imagination, not our child's. Hence, Dora and Elmo did not make the cut. 
  • Toys that do too much and break too easily. Enough said.
  • High-stimulation toys. Toys that strive to recreate a television watching or video game experience with flashing lights, mechanical voices, speed and sound effects will set the stimulation bar very high for kids. They are designed for sensory overload and come with a rush of adrenaline. Frequent bursts of adrenaline will also increase the cortisol levels in a child's system, which is stressful. Toys do not need to be roller coaster rides. 
  • Annoying or offensive toys. Those that made an awful noise, or were just plain annoying to us.  
  • Toys that claim to give children a developmental edge. Play is not a race. It is not an advancement opportunity. 
  • Toy multiples - pick one of each thing. Sophie had several musical keyboards. We saved one. This also applied to her stuffed animals. We picked her top five favorites to set out as keepers, donated a few, and put the rest in her toy library.
Keep it simple. 

Payne reminds us that you are the best judge of what delights and engages your child, of what is developmentally appropriate. You know what toys have made a special place in your child's heart and which will be forgotten if they disappear. Kids don't need many toys to play with either. They need us to get out the way and give them unstructured time. With that in mind, here is how to get started:

  • After the kids are in bed, gather all the toys and place them in one gigantic mountain. 
  • Get some trash bags. 
  • Halve the pile - place your keepers in one pile. In the other pile, place the discards. 
  • Now take a look at your "discard" pile. Decide what you are going to trash or donate. Bag it. 
  • Now take a look at your "keep" pile. Halve it again. In one pile, place all the toys you want to keep out currently. Store them in attractive bins at eye level for the kiddos. 
  • In the other pile, place toys that are going to go in your "toy library". This should go somewhere out of eyesight. Pull out these toys on rainy days, or when the in-laws visit and wonder where all their plastic gifted toys are.
The toys we chose to keep are simple, beautiful, and engaging. Toddlers are sensory creatures, so we found toys made of organic or natural materials to be best. We had no toys that really qualified, so we had to get new ones. Luckily, our daughter's second birthday was on the horizon, so we made our toy preferences known to family and were gifted with some truly beautiful things. We now have natural, durable toys that will hopefully become heirlooms valued for generations to come. Here is a sampling of some toys our daughter now plays with:
  • silk streamers
  • wooden cars and animals
  • musical instruments (maracas, percussion block, glockenspiel, wooden crow sounder, etc.)
  • wooden puzzles
  • high quality, beeswax crayons (we chose Stockmar)
  • non-toxic, wooden, embossed alphabet blocks
  • a Waldorf style doll with embroidered face, yarn hair, and changeable outfits
  • nesting blocks 
  • modeling dough
  • a small assortment of things we find outside (rocks, gems, leaves, etc.)
  • a play kitchen with cooking utensils
  • toddler sized broom for sweeping with mommy
While toys are are an important part of a child's play, they are of course, not the overwhelming center. We also spend time on nature walks, imaginary play and make-believe, making art and music, doing household chores, running and rolling about, and reading books. We have also simplified her books, by keeping only 8 to 12 out at a time. We have four built in storage units in our living room. They were formerly cluttered with electronic devices, cords, media, etc. They now house four beautiful wicker bins with floral lining. One is for Sophie's books, the other for blocks, the other for toys. That's right, she has just one box of toys out. We nixed the play room. I decided that play should not be confined to just one area of the house, nor should there be an entire room dedicated to just toys. That puts too much of an emphasis on them. Her larger items, like her play kitchen, now sit in her bedroom closet.

I feel like we can breathe now. My daughter plays independently again, has hardly a tantrum, and needs me less. She is now much more independent and relaxed. And for the first time, I really love being a part of her world. It's not surprising a grown woman with a college degree that once taught in schools and ran a non-profit would be bored sitting on the floor listening to Dora say over and over again, "Lo hicimos! We did it!" I love playing with her toys now, they are fun for the adults in the house too! In today's fast-paced and materialistic society, Payne has reminded me that less really is more.

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