The Importance of Play Houses for Kids

Filed under: Activities: Babies, Amazing Kids, Amazing Parents, Cabin Fever

With dreams of summer and backyard camp-outs -- and the early spring reality of chilly mud advancing to the doorstep -- the children have requested that Cabin Fever haul out the play tents from the basement. I have a love-hate relationship with these tents, which tend to become catch-alls for blankets, pillows, stuffed animals, and, occasionally, children, and which provide us with yet another obstacle course through which to weave. There's nothing like a block-littered structure made of neon fabric, teetering in front of the couch to announce: Kids live here!

I'm glad that kids live here. But I like our scheme of storage bins behind closed cupboard doors, which, after 9 pm, gives the adults in the house the illusion that it is ours. Upon reflection, it occurs to me that the children are doing something similar with their play tents: they are creating a house of their own, filling it with objects that have meaning for them, and staking out their territory.

Play tents are not essential to this favourite childhood game. The most important ingredient is a parental willingness to let go: Let the mess pile up. Let the blanket box be emptied. Let the play happen.

My children have made houses out of blankets and chairs and couch cushions, underneath the dining room table, in the top bunk, and on the carpeted landing halfway up the stairs. The crucial ingredient is containment: space is being marked out and claimed, whether it's beneath a stool at the breakfast bar, or behind a curtain.
My children began playing in this way from a very young age -- perhaps by two years old. And they continue to play in this way, though for the older children, the "house" is now a spaceship, or a distant planet, or Hogwarts.

If you've ever watched children play like this, you'll know that the most occupying part of the activity comes from the set-up: what goes where, what belongs to whom, who performs which tasks, what props are needed to do various jobs, etc. Rules are being laid out. Stuff is acquired. Often, a hierarchy of sorts is formed. Cooperative effort blooms naturally. It is quite an amazing process to observe.

I use the word "observe" word deliberately. The play houses, inside our larger family home, belong to the children, and not to me. There is considerable controversy and heated discussion about how much we should entertain and/or play with our children. Parenting is an individual and creative balancing act, and it must meet constantly changing needs. Every parent figures out this balance for himself or herself. This is my personal rule of thumb: I do activities with my children, but I don't play with them.

I don't crawl into their play houses, and I take care not to insert my ideas into their imaginary games. This doesn't mean I don't engage with them. I will pet imaginary dogs and agree to be "Grandma" as I do the dishes and they run through the kitchen, and I am a willing -- if somewhat distracted -- audience for their many performances. I will brew them a pot of tea for a tea party, and zip up a zipper on a costume. And I love doing things with them: cooking, reading, making crafts, completing puzzles. But play belongs to them. It is theirs, just like the play houses are theirs.

We all need our illusions.

(Now, to work on convincing them that clean-up time is theirs, too).

How do your kids like to play at home? And how do you feel about getting in on the fun?

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.