Deficit of Play

The other day, my son had his first injury that caused him to bleed.  Thankfully, it was nothing big.  The funny thing is that I didn’t even see what happened.  I was at the table eating dinner, and he was doing his usual exploring nearby.  Because of where the table was, I didn’t see exactly what he was doing, nor did I hear a loud thump or the like.

All of a sudden, I looked down and saw blood at his mouth.  I thought for a second- did he just eat some berries?  No.  It was as I started to take a look to see where it was coming from that he started to cry.  It was hard to get a good look, but he calmed down quickly.  It wasn’t till later that we discovered a little cut on his upper lip.  He must have bumped the area or accidentally bit his lip.

It’s unsettling when even little things happen.  Of course what I fear are significant injuries.  One of my colleagues told me recently that her granddaughter had a burn injury.  She’s just under 2 years old, and she pulled down a bottle warmer by the cord, causing boiling water to go on her arm and hand.  She had to go to a burn unit, and might have to have skin grafts.  My colleague’s daughter (the toddler’s mother) is devastated.

It’s scary because as careful as one can be, it’s difficult to prevent every calamity from occurring when it comes to toddlers.  We’ve babyproofed as best as we can- put a gate so he can’t enter the kitchen when we’re cooking, bolted the large cabinets and bookshelves to the wall.  We keep dangerous items out of reach.

When going down stairs or climbing off of items, he’s figured out how to turn around and go feet first.  So as long as he’s not up too high, it’s fine.  But we can’t keep our eyes on him 100% of the time.  And we can’t babyproof everything.  He’s pretty steady, but he’s still a toddler and will often trip on himself.  So you never know what it is that’s gonna get him.  But we also can’t keep him in a bubble.

I came across this article a long time ago, before I had WZW:

https://aeon.co/essays/children-today-are-suffering-a-severe-deficit-of-play

It talks about how important playing is for a child’s development and learning.  Unstructured play, when kids are allowed to play with each other and figure things out themselves, is essential to social development.  When adults direct the play, it’s not the same.  If one kid is too bossy, or has a temper tantrum, it won’t go over so well with the other kids.  So they learn interpersonal skills.

Other young mammals play as well.  Why would it make sense evolutionarily for young animals to play and potentially put themselves in harm’s way?  Because it’s helping practice for adult skills, and the same goes for humans.  Kids need to expose themselves to some level of danger and fear, which helps with emotional regulation.  Without unstructured play, kids are at higher risk of developing depression, anxiety, and narcissism amongst other issues.

The article discusses it really well; the above is the general message.  As a kid, I was lucky enough to be able to play with my brother and the kids in the neighborhood regularly.  We used to wander around, riding our bikes to each other’s houses, visiting the lady down the street with 2 dogs and 4 cats.  My mom didn’t know exactly where we were at all times or what we were up to, but we’d come back when it got dark and it was dinnertime.  We did have TV and video games back then, but the bulk of our time was not spent in front of screens.

As a mom, it’s a little harder to stomach letting my kid roam around the neighborhood, not knowing exactly what he’s up to.  If anything were to happen to him, like the mom whose toddler got badly burned, I would never forgive myself.  The reality is that stranger kidnappings are extremely rare, and parents these days have gotten too cautious about letting their kids walk to school, much less wander around the neighborhood unsupervised.

I don’t have all the answers- ultimately I’ll have to figure out how to balance keeping my son safe, but also want to keep in mind that he needs to be allowed to play without adult supervision constantly.  We recently bought a new home (we’ll be moving next month), and one reason we chose it was the huge unfinished backyard.  At the very least, we hope to have it be a place where he can safely play with his friends, cousins, and hopefully a sibling.

I don’t know where my brother and his wife will end up on the spectrum of parenting, but since their twins and my son are only 10 months apart, I hope I can convince them of the importance of unstructured play.  It would be nice to have built-in playmates in the family.  And of course, we can hopefully find like-minded parents when he makes friends in the future.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

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