a peek inside the fishbowl

06 Feb, 2010

How to play with your kids

Posted by andrea tomkins in: parenting|Yaktivism

This is going to come out long and rambly, I just know it.

I’ve been dwelling on yesterday’s Hyper Parenting post and this has all been percolating in my brain a little too long. :)

I’ve been reading other posts and comments about the Hyper Parenting doc. I have two other comments to make about this topic:

1) We have to be confident about the choices we make as parents. Julie, for example (Hi Julie!) feels guilty embarrassed that her kids aren’t enrolled in any extra-curricular activities. Many of us feel guilty. And I understand why. Parents stand around and talk about this stuff. And there are three year-old golfers and violin players all around us.

The only extra-curricular activity we have insisted upon is swimming. If you’re human – you must learn how to swim. The girls have been enrolled in a variety of programs over the years (although never more than two at a time – and that includes swimming) like pottery, soccer, basketball, dance, and gymnastics. Sarah is in a jump rope club right now (it’s VERY COOL). Our dabbling has been about trying different things, not about giving them an edge up on their peers or building their resume.  We never push them. The decision is always their own.

So when a schoolyard mom asks you what activities your son or daughter is doing, you can feel good about saying: “we’re just doing swimming lessons right now – there isn’t enough time to take on anything else! Ha ha!” And then walk away, knowing you are doing the right thing for you and your family. 

Someone recently wrote to me about skating lessons. She felt pressure to enrol her kids in skating lessons. I’ll tell ya what, if you can stand up on skates and propel yourself in a forwards direction, all you need to do is take your family out skating. Flood your backyard, or take a trip up to your local rink on Saturday mornings for a few weeks. Really! You won’t believe how quickly kids learn how to skate. No lessons required.

2) As a parent, you have a choice about what kind of person you want to raise. (Well, ok, to a point. Genetics do play a part!) And with little kids it starts with play. I touched on this topic in this past post.)

I really can’t profess to be an expert in the area of your kids. I can only describe what worked for me and my own family.

Anyway, this goes back to a great little discussion over at Some kind of Wondermom.

I think that as parents, we need make sure our kids get time to play independently (that is, play without us, the parents) and time to play with us.

Like Vicky’s commenters, I found that the girls desperately needed to play with me some days, and not on others. I think it’s important to go with their lead on this. If they’re able to play alone, that’s fine. I believe the goal here (if you like to look at things that way) is independent play. Why? Because you want them to grow up to be self-confident, self-sufficient independent adults.

Your whole day cannot be spent playing with your kids. Your kids also need to see you cooking and cleaning, working, interacting with others, etc. There is value in this too. Your kids learn by seeing you do these things too. 

Personally, I was never able to sit down with the girls to play Barbies. But I was able to sit and play a number of other things. I liked setting up the Playmobil (still do!), doing puzzles, playing tag and hide and seek, and doing arts and crafts. As I said to Vicky, I think the trick is to find something you love to do and do it together in an engaged and focused kind of way. It might be drawing, baking/cooking, building things, going for walks, sports, photography, swimming … whatever!

If you’re looking for inspiration for some simple play, well, there are lots of ideas floating out there. Here are just a few off the top of my head. (And these ideas may not be not appropriate for every age, but you’ll get the idea):

  • Take a bath together
  • Fill up the sink and play with tub toys or a combination of household items: i.e. corks, plastic containers, ice cubes.
  • Do some baking (anyone can help measure!) or make “potions” out of things you find in the cupboard. Equal parts water and cornstarch is a fun one.
  • Make your own playdoh
  • Play with blocks and stacking toys (for older kids: Lego/construction toys)
  • Listen to music, dance and sing

You know the old joke about kids and birthday gifts … that they’d rather play with the boxes and ribbons and not the gift inside? It’s true. Honest to god, young kids truly don’t care about the dollar amount that is spent on their play. They have just as much fun (if not more) when the play is spontaneous and perfectly free. They only want to spend time with the people they love.

Some other easy ideas to do with your kid:

  • Sort through your recycle bin for clean food packaging. Put a price tag on each one (10 cents, 25 cents, one dollar) and set up your own grocery store. Take turns being the customer and sales clerk.
  • Write a story. Each person takes turns contributing one line. You be the scribe. Print it out and have the child illustrate it.
  • Go on a nature walk and see how many different leaves you can find. If you’re inclined, find out what kind of trees they came from and press them into a book.
  • Make a mud pie and decorate it
  • Build a snowman or a snow fort
  • Make your own sidewalk paint and go crazy on your driveway. Draw a track for the trike. Design a new kind of hopscotch grid. Decorate the sidewalk with numbers and letters.

Raising our children begins when they are very very small. It starts on day one (okay, maybe two)!

Is it just me, or do many people assume their infants need every jingly doodad under the sun to keep them occupied every single waking moment of the day? So many strollers/playpens/playmats nowadays are bedecked with a hundred distracting things for the baby to look at.

It’s not really for the baby, is it? I mean yes, it’s certainly being sold to us that way. We’re bombarded with messages that tell us our babies need brain stimulation, and along those same lines, we’re made to feel guilty if we DON’T buy into the hype. But as the Hyper Parents doc explained, kids will seek out (and get!) the stimulation they need from their own surroundings. They don’t need us to provide it for them. The whoosits and baby-sized jingle jangles are really sold as a convenience for the parents. They’re designed to occupy our babies for five minutes so we get a coffee or have an snippet of adult conversation with a neighbour. I’m not saying five minutes of sanity is a bad thing. I happily dumped Sarah in an Excersaucer and spread Cheerios over the tray while I made dinner. Sanity is GOOD. But how much is too much? Where does it start to be more in favour of the parent, and less about the baby’s needs? Is Baby Einstein too much? Portable DVD players in cars and restaurants? Electronic sound-and-light gadgets attached to the sides of cribs? Where’s the line? Where does it end?

I liken this to unnecessary soother use… plugging up a kid when s/he doesn’t really need it.

We must ask ourselves: how can we, as parents, promote creative, independent little people? And where does it begin?

Being a good parent doesn’t just happen. I know it’s very easy to get mired in day-to-day survival. (There were many days when simple shower was a major victory for me.) Parenting involves making some conscious choices about a whole bunch of stuff. 

Some other things that worked for us here at Casa Fishbowl:

  • Making an effort and see how other people do it. Find out what works for them and be open to new ways of doing things.
  • Buying toys which encourage imagination and dramatic play. Avoid ones that do it all for the kid i.e. teddy bears that do all the talking.
  • Rotating toys instead of having them all out at the same time. It’s less messy that way too!
  • Arts and crafts – give kids an idea, buy the supplies, participate.
  • Supplementing colouring books with lots of blank paper that’s easily within reach
  • To mix things up, colouring with a purpose i.e. “Today we’re going to make an art gallery: draw one portrait, one landscape, one abstract. Go!” Or visit the art gallery and “copy” a piece you liked.
  • I can say this now because my kids are older, but don’t worry about encouraging “smarts” in an active (and dare I say, annoying) way unless you’ve been told by a professional (like a doctor, educator, or speech therapist) that help is needed. Kids are sponges. Read a book together, but don’t bother with flash cards. Stop and take time to look at things around you and explain them in simple terms kids can understand.
  • Counting finger and toes and Cheerios. Learning simple rhymes and songs.
  • Listening.
  • Not letting fear be the reason. Afraid of kids walking to school alone? Arrange a walking school bus with neighbours. Or drop them a few blocks away from school and let them walk the rest of the way alone.
  • Encouraging play situations with minimal toys. What’ll happen when you go to the beach without sand toys? Or go camping with just a few small ones? Or are trapped in the car waiting for the traffic to start moving again? You know what’ll happen? Your kids will figure it out.
  • Limiting screen time. Our kids don’t watch any TV during the week. We PVR a few shows for Saturday mornings.
  • Eating at the table. Mornings we don’t really eat together because each girl gets up at a different time and I’m making lunches and the table is like a bus station with overlapping arrivals and departures. But dinners are always together, no TV, at the table, seven nights a week.
  • I just glanced over at Mark’s computer. There’s a Globe and Mail article about DVD players with the following subhead: “No more endless games of I Spy!” Don’t buy into it. You don’t need it. I Spy is GOOD.
  • And most importantly: we go outside!

Anyway, yes. A long post (see, I knew it would be!). I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic. How do YOU play with your kids?

45 Responses to "How to play with your kids"

1 | coffeewithjulie

February 6th, 2010 at 4:07 pm


Hi, right back at ya! :)

Note though that I said I was “embarrassed” not “guilty.” I’m embarrassed because it seems like in society today it is a basic NEED – like food, or water or something – to have your child enrolled in some kind of formal activity. When people ask me what Stella is enrolled in, I feel embarrassed to say out loud (like on a blog post) “nothing” because it feels like I am admitting to not meeting a basic need.

But I don’t feel guilty about it because I offer to enrol her in anything at all — anything! — but she doesn’t want to. She prefers to do her own thing. I also don’t feel guilty because I value the time that it frees up for family dinner (every night like Casa Fish) and the more unstructured things that we do in free time … like she just took up rock-climbing with her dad, the cross-country skiing we’re doing as a family this winter, camping, travelling and the list goes on.

So no guilt here. But perhaps Stella will tell her therapist in years to come that her mother never enrolled her in team sports or dance classes and she was deprived as a result!

2 | andrea

February 6th, 2010 at 4:59 pm


Note taken!
Perhaps I was just projecting my own mommy guilt? :)

3 | Stefania

February 6th, 2010 at 5:00 pm


I agree that swimming is important but since we live in Canada skating is very important as well b/c if you can’t do it then you can’t help your kids.
As a child I begged and pleaded my parents for dance or gymnastics lessons. They didn’t budge. I can’t swim (although I did take adult swim classes as an adult) and I try to skate but it’s not great. I was never enrolled in anything. I grew up very shy, without confidence and scared about everything. Now there’s a documentary for you. :-)
My oldest is enrolled in skating class and back-to-back dance & acro (tumbling) classes, which are 30 mins each. She’s interested in those things and enjoys them. She swims in the warmer months. I feel it’s important for kids to have activities b/c it gives them something to look forward to, it’s a social activity as well as physical and hopefully it’ll give them something to focus on when they’re a teen and keep them out of trouble (I’m really hoping).
My girls see me cleaning, cooking, etc lots and like you Andrea, I’m not one for playing with dolls but I will sit down and do a puzzle and colour b/c I find them relaxing and creative.
I’m not sure where I’m going with this but I do feel that kids need free time to play alone and with others and it’s nice to have an activity or two (if they enjoy it) where creativity and movement are encouraged.

4 | Finola

February 6th, 2010 at 5:18 pm


I find it’s all about finding a balance. I grew up in a similar way to Stefania, with almost no activities at all. I learned to swim properly as an adult from my then boyfriend, now husband. I am still a bad skater and I won’t go downhill skiing. My kids are in swimming lessons now, but not when they were little because my oldest had a couple of bad instructors in a row and lost all her confidence, so we pulled them out and waited until they were older and better ready to learn. We have also invested in downhill ski lessons because I don’t want them to be afraid like I am. I want them to grow to be ready to try new things.
But I also think it’s important for them to have down time. Often on a weekend we are still in our PJs at lunchtime. And my girls need that, and if they don’t get it, I can see it in their behaviour.
Having a few activities in their schedules is all fairly new for us though, and when they were little we were like Julie, no activities. The girls just weren’t up for it.

5 | andrea

February 6th, 2010 at 5:29 pm


Stefania – all the reasons you listed … that it gives them something to look forward to, gives them confidence, that it’s a social thing … are great reasons to enroll a kid in an organized activity. I like the fact that the girls could try something we couldn’t go at home, with instructors who know what they’re talking about (!). But some parents go overboard.

How much is too much? How much is not enough? It depends on so many things. Finding the right balance is key!

6 | Stefania

February 6th, 2010 at 5:36 pm


Andrea: Too much if they have no downtime and you don’t either b/c you’re driving here and there and it’s breaking the bank (dance costumes aren’t exactly cheap!). I guess it’s too little if they’re asking for more. I’m not sure.

Finola: I can’t ski either. Absolutely mortified. I tried once as an adult and I had to take a lift DOWN the hill. So embarassing but necessary.

As a parent I’m not going to say ‘yes’ to everything but I would encourage my kids to try things, especially when they’re young and almost fearless.

7 | andrea

February 6th, 2010 at 5:55 pm


BTW, I think family lessons are a great. I love the idea of learning to ski as a family. It’s fun, non-competitive, and who knows … that might the activity that brings you together. (Thinking ahead to teen years too!)

8 | andrea

February 6th, 2010 at 5:57 pm


The point about organized lessons I was trying to make is that we parents often think it’s the only way to introduce our kids to something new, but (depending on the activity of course!) it isn’t always the only way. i.e. Would you take a sandcastle-building course before you tried to build a sandcastle? :)

9 | Betsy Mae

February 6th, 2010 at 6:23 pm


I’m surprised nobody touched on ‘playdates’. Remember when our Moms didn’t organized actual ‘dates’ so that we could play with other kids????

10 | Stacey

February 6th, 2010 at 6:51 pm


I’m reading a great book right now called “Playful Parenting” (by Lawrence J Cohen, PhD). He is full of great ideas for getting back to playing with our kids. His theory is that many behaviour problems can be fixed through play. I have found that if I approach troublesome times in our house playfully, it goes much smoother. For instance, getting out of the bath used to be a huge trigger for my little one. Getting annoyed and raising my voice didn’t calm her down (big shock!), but playing This Little Piggy on her toes as I dried her off did. Now she is full of giggles instead of screeches as she gets out of the bath.

Our kids are also in no organized lessons right now. We did soccer in the fall, and might do it again in the spring, just because I think that teamwork is a valuable skill that is difficult to learn by yourself! Other than that, my kids entertain themselves and we do activities together as a family, rather than letting some other adult have all the fun of playing with them at the pool, or whatever. Both my kids have more fun “dancing like no one’s watching” than they ever would in a class, being told what is right and what is wrong.

11 | coffeewithjulie

February 6th, 2010 at 7:17 pm


Andrea – big, big hug to you b/c a long-lost friend just found me again thanks to your blog! :)

Betsy Mae – Playdates didn’t exist when we were kids! Good point! Now, I organize them ALL the time for my DD since she doesn’t have a sibling her age to play with.

Finola – That’s something I think about often … like, if I don’t introduce my child to something early, will it be too late later on? We all know adults who are scared of swimming, skiing, etc. When you’re younger, it just seems like we have less fear. Oh, wait a minute … there ARE a ton of kids screaming in fear at swimming lessons … Sigh! Someone just tell me what to do and I will do it! I promise!

12 | Ginger

February 6th, 2010 at 7:42 pm


I have thoughts on this but I cannot seem to get them organized. I have literally written my comment 5 times and deleted it each time. I like what you have said and I agree with it 100%. Maybe when I can figure out exactly what I want to say and how to say it I can write an actual comment!

13 | Miss Vicky

February 6th, 2010 at 8:19 pm


On maternity leave, activities are good because they get us out of the house, and the naps sure are better after swimming or gymnastics!

I never sign up my infant or preschooler to classes because I think it`s going to give them an “edge”. I think it’s good to do some structured activity as preschoolers because it helps them learn to listen and focus, and it does help expend energy (especially in the winter months when it can be hard to get outside for serious run-around time).

3yo G does one class a week and has for a while. We mix it up during the year, and are skill-oriented. Swimming we think is necessary – a survival skill. We did that in the fall and up to last week. Now he is doing skating lessons – again, I consider it a skill and since I haven’t skated for many years I don’t think I’d be a very good instructor. We do gymnastics one term a year as well, mostly because G just loves it (and it is handy to learn how to fall and tumble safely). No classes in the summer ’cause we’re out and about, playing in the park or the yard.

Later on when team sports are an option I think the teamwork experience woud be valuable (although I am shocked that soccer means cleats and shin pads at 4 years old – what the heck?). But I wouldn’t enrol them in something they weren’t interested in already, and if team sports isn’t their bag (it’s not everyone’s bag, right?), then we won’t push it.

When I was a kid we were truly pressured to do sports – not only do them, but excel at them. It made my relationship with physical activity a little troubled, I suspect. So I think a balanced approach to is good.

As for the arts side of things, I’d happily sign either kid up to something if they showed a real interest in it and it was something they wanted to do. G is quite interested in hip-hop dancing and there are classes but we’re holding off for now. Until they are older I think I would prefer just exposing them to the arts, period. We visit galleries, attend concerts, read a lot, sing a lot, dance in the living room….

It’s also important to take the cues from your kids. Wee G is very physical. He’s a doer. He doesn’t sit still for crafts. He won’t watch a hockey game – he prefers to play his own with the Sens on in the background. Play with toys can involve elaborate scenarios, usually re-enacting stuff he’s picked up from books or movies. It’s fascinating to watch his imagination at work. He is good at playing by himself but he does get bored – we’re not always great at responding to his boredom by engaging him in play…. he probably gets a little too much screen time, especially after school when I’m trying to get supper ready and in the winter when I can’t just haul him out to the park or take him for a stroll around the block

G’s physicality is a little baffling to me, as I was a bookworm as a kid and more into the arts. As for AJ, well, right now we’re working on mastering the sippy cup and the pincer grip so who knows? I’m looking forward to seeing how G and AJ’s interests and aptitudes develop, whether they decide to do organized activities or not.

14 | Miss Vicky

February 6th, 2010 at 8:25 pm


Julie – on the kids screaming at swimming lessons. I wonder whether those kids swim regularly with their parents, and I wonder whether their parents are afraid of the water and the kids have picked up on the fear and are reflecting it back. Also, I’ve noticed that in some cases the screaming is for the parents’ benefit and has nothing to do with the activity in question….

I will say that despite the fact that G is incredibly distracted and a bit of a pain in the butt for his swimming instructor, he is so confident in the water now. We took him swimming the other day and he was diving under the water to get rings – I was so impressed!

15 | Archie

February 6th, 2010 at 8:56 pm


I love this post.

16 | archie

February 6th, 2010 at 8:58 pm


Excellent. I love this post.

17 | andrea

February 6th, 2010 at 9:17 pm


Julie: who’s your long-lost friend? Tell!

Re: screaming children at swimming lessons. I think dome kids are naturally more fearful, no matter what

18 | andrea

February 6th, 2010 at 9:21 pm


Playdates, ack, yes, they are a modern invention. We do playdates sometimes. They are necessary because many kids are overscheduled and there’s just no other way.

Most of the time the kids just ring each others doorbells!

19 | Shan

February 6th, 2010 at 9:27 pm


We aren’t big on organized activities for our kids. Our 7 year old has swimming lessons periodically through out the year and has since she was 3. She takes riding lessons, but she wanted to take the winter session off. It’s dang cold in that riding arena, so I don’t blame her. She seems to have a natural affinity for riding, she does well in her lessons and loves them. I try not to do both at the same time. So if she’s riding, then we’re on a break from swimming lessons.

Abby sings in the junior choir at our church and has for the past few years. The choir takes the summer off and practice is once every other week for half an hour. Our church is less than a five minute walk from our front door, so it’s kind of a laid back activity for us that’s easy to work into our schedule.

We’ve never really gone the competitive sports route with her. She’s not that type of kid. She’s leans more towards the creative end of things and is much happier singing or doing something artistic. She also attends a bi-weekly kids club at the church. It’s basically a buffet of craft supplies with a loose theme attached to it. If it works out that we’re free the night it’s on then she’ll go.

Our four year old is just starting to dip her toe into extracurricular activities. She has attended one kids club, with me in tow and we had mixed results. That’s more to do with her personality than anything. She has a hard time with new experiences and new people. So she had some fun moments and some moments where she climbed under the table to hide out. This past week she went to her first choir practice. I’m not sure she did much singing, I think it was more about being with her big sister.

I think really, we like to stick to laid back activities that don’t pressure our girls or my husband and myself. The choir and the kids club are no commitment activities. If we miss a week it’s no big deal. The riding is a private one on one lesson, so whether we’re there or not the teacher still needs to get paid. We’ve worked it out so that Abby is always happy to go. Just by the time her lesson is at and how we get her there. Grandma (she takes her lessons on one of Grandma’s three horses) picks her up from school and they go right to the stable, then it’s snack and get the horse ready to ride. It’s their special time together. Riding is a big confidence booster for Abby and since she has confidence issues at school, we feel it’s important she’s doing something she’s good at. I wish I could bottle the smile on her face when she’s trotting and in control of her horse.

I don’t feel like they should be doing more and I don’t they they do either. Our neighbourhood is full of kids. I think a good third of Abby’s class lives on our street. The playing just sort of occurs. No real set playdates, although I do set them up sometimes. Oh and we make sure to mix in jammie days. That’s more a winter activity though. Just days where there’s no expectation to be anywhere or do anything. I do not get the appeal of having your kids in a bunch of different activities.

20 | Finola

February 6th, 2010 at 9:44 pm


Julie, Vicky, We would take our oldest daughter swimming and she would love it, but in lessons she was bawling and tearing apart the skin behind her knees because her stress was activating her exzema. Her instructor was trying to make her jump into the water, and she just wasn’t ready to do that. When we talked to the instructor to try to work this problem out, she told us we should be forcing her to jump in. We pulled our daughter out of that class that day and we didn’t go back for a couple of years. Now she is older and has successfully taken lessons again and is swimming like a fish. I think it’s important to follow the lead of the child. They will let you know when they are ready for the next step. I will never force my kids to do something they are afraid to do or even resist. I just want them to have fun at this age.

21 | andrea

February 6th, 2010 at 9:56 pm


I agree that behaviour problems can be fixed through play.

I have had this experience too, especially when the girls were younger. I remember being annoyed at some bad behaviour, and instead of losing it I’d take a big breath and say “ONE TWO …(big pause) BUCKLE MY SHOE” and we’d all laugh. It always diffuses whatever was going on.

Also, I have always found they are miles better when they have done something active/physical. Worst behaviour happens when the girls are tired or if we’ve been stuck indoors all day.

22 | Vicky

February 6th, 2010 at 10:14 pm


Andrea, that was the best piece of advice you could have given – do what you love to do with your kids. There are some great ideas, and I will definitely be trying them! I think it’s easier when the kids are a little older. Having a 3 year old and 8 month old is a bit limiting, trying to work outings around naps and feedings. That being said, it is reassuring to know how other parents approach play, and that playing with your kids isn’t a natural thing for everyone (like you said on my post Julie!)

Has anyone else found that their husbands/spouses tend to have an easier time getting down and playing with the kids? Sometimes I think my husband has more fun with the lego/tracks/marble run than my 3 year old does.

Another point – I think to some extent families just need to go back to basics; family dinners, game nights, quality time together. Really all the kids want is to spend time with us, right? Doesn’t really matter WHAT we are doing.

23 | andrea

February 6th, 2010 at 10:32 pm


Vicky, Emma and Sarah are only 23 months apart. It was a juggle at first, no doubt about it, but somehow I survived!

I slept when I could, and was very sad when Emma gave up her nap. I think I needed it more than she did.

Mark is much better at certain kinds of play. He totally gets down there with them. But then again, I spend a lot if time doing other thing… like the crafty stuff. Everyone has different interests, right?

24 | Scattered Mom

February 6th, 2010 at 10:49 pm


Some things Jake and I used to do…

-visit the farmers market and try a new food (or three!)

-pick wild blackberries

-take binoculars to the bird sanctuary, with a bird ID book, and see what we could find.

-go to the duck pond and feed the ducks

-beach comb. Collect shells and sea glass, then take them home to do crafts with. Along the way ID and/or catch shore crabs, tiny fish, etc.

-visit the cats at the SPCA and give them some loooove.

-rollerblade/walk/bike our local sea walk

-hike, hike hike, and more hiking. Stop and look at snails, slugs, plants, mushrooms, spider webs, and more.

-bug safari; catch, ID, and release buggies

-catch frogs/tadpoles

-fingerpaint on the back porch with a run through the sprinkler after to clean off

-lots of picnics

-whale watching down in the park (yes, they’d swim right by!)

-fishing off the pier

-visit the fish monger and check out the tugboats at the docks. Many are happy to show kids a live crab or lobster, and a giant halibut

-museums and art galleries

-Home Depot free building workshops

-go to a local park with a sketchbook and draw the flowers

-fossil hunting along the Puntledge river (you are sure to find some, there’s tonS!)

-art or cultural festivals

-outdoor pools, waterparks

-set up a tent in the backyard and have a book fest

-bike rides

-build forts on the beach with driftwood

-beach bonfire with a weinie roast

-visit a local farm

-visit historical sites in the area

-visit a pet store and see the animals

-visit a garden center and check out the plants

Oh I know there’s more, I just can’t think of them. I used to keep a card catalog of sorts, with something to do written down on each card. They were divided into ones that cost money and ones that were free. When we wanted to do something, I’d pick a card. It kept me from forgetting all the wonderful things to do and places to go in the area.

Our biggest focus was being outside, as that is where our family loves to be most. Still is!

26 | Ryan

February 6th, 2010 at 11:36 pm


Great post, Andrea. I’ve been talking a lot about this with friends and coworkers, having been teaching two- and three- and four-year-olds out here in Taiwan (yeah, that gives an indication of where this is headed). We had to fight with the boss to get play time outside with the kids – the day is filled with writing and books and complex art projects and science and math. We carved out time for stories and songs every day – a mere hour a week was all that was ‘scheduled’ for these things – because, honest to God, these were the things these kids learned.

You want to observe how kids learn? Teach them a second language early using different methods and see what they pick up. I had the second-year class, and the things they knew were from stories they had read and songs they had sung in their first year, or things they had repeated every day through game-play. Not things the books ‘taught’ them, and it wasn’t the teacher’s fault – she’s my fiancée, so I knew intimately what was going on in the classroom. The fun and play and repetition are vital to learning.

Touching on your point of unstructured play, I see how it’s stunted here, as parents often play for their kids – they’ll lift them up at the playground, set them at the top of the slide and catch them at the bottom, place them on the swing and push them and take them off…you get the idea. When the kids are old enough, computers and TV and school and homework fill the gap of time with parents and imagination is just shut off (it’s not really encouraged here anyway). It’s a shame, as there are a lot of little parks that are well maintained all over the city – I have two near my apartment and two near my school, all within five minutes’ walking distance.

Out here (especially in China, with the one child policy, from what I hear), any edge is sought and money thrown at it in droves, the idea being that there are so many other people, you have to do whatever you can to give your kid a leg up. The generation just having kids now is the first to have gone through the whole cram school process themselves, and while some of them remember the terror of four extra hours of school per day and say no for their children, others believe it all the more necessary. There are no team sports, there are no school bands, there is no such thing as group activities. Everything is focused on the individual child – improving their English, math, piano, violin, homework, lego robot classes, science, even toy-playing ability (yes, I had a kid in play class). It’s disturbing and grinds on me a bit every day, though I try and encourage them in my classes in ways that I don’t think they get in other places. Sometimes it’s difficult to participate in this system, though.

One last things – a podcast I listen to, the Brain Science Podcast, had an interview with a doctor who wrote a book on the importance of play, especially play without structure. The book is Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, and the podcast can be found here. It also talks about how play isn’t just for kids – we adults need our playtime, too.

I hope that this sheds a little light on another culture and contributes something to the discussion. I guess it’s a showing of what the idea of hyper parenting can become when it’s taken to an extreme and embedded in the culture.

27 | mrsgryphon

February 7th, 2010 at 2:03 am


I love this post, Andrea, and all the fabulous comments!

I got sucked into the “must schedule activities” vortex for a while with our first daughter – in swimming lessons at 12 months, music class at 18 months etc. I didn’t take long for me to realize that anything she was “learning” in those classes, I could teach just as easily through playtime. She’s now just turned 4, and didn’t do any more regularly scheduled activities until this past fall when she started ballet with her 2 best friends. It’s definitely more social than skill-based, although she does know 1st and 6th positions and loves to twirl! For our family, one or two scheduled activities a week + school would be enough to start with. I think there are some kids who can handle more, and likely will when they are older (I know I was in several school clubs, band, choir, 4-H and youth group in high school). Until we know how our child responds to the academic and social pressures of school, though, we’ll keep it simple and definitely let her try new things that strike her fancy. I also have a real issue with activities that are scheduled for weekends and over the dinner hour – that’s family time for us, and I would be pretty hard-pressed to allow her to participate in those. I feel like we have our whole lives to wake up to an alarm when we’re working and in school, why do 6 year olds have to be at the arena at 7 am on a Saturday?!

Re: Play… I’m awfully glad to hear that I’m not the only Mom who isn’t very good at sitting down to play with dolls (I also really don’t like playing picnic for hours on end with fake food from her kitchen) but give me an outing to the Science Centre, a craft project, or muffin baking and I’m happy and so is she!

I’m really struggling with finding ways to encourage her independent play, though. She’s always wanted to be by my side, and can’t seem to play for more than a couple of minutes on her own. She’s just turned 4, and I’m hoping that it will get better… I know eventually she and her sister (8 months old now!) will play together. Right now, the demands to “play with me” are constant and more than a little exhausting. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of making sure that her playroom is stocked with “imagination” toys, and she certainly can come up with some pretty great scenarios, I just wish she didn’t need so much reinforcement from me.

I still haven’t watched the documentary (it’s sitting on the PVR, waiting for some down-time on Sunday!), but I’m absolutely intrigued after all the discussion that has been generated.

28 | Francis Kopke

February 7th, 2010 at 8:09 am


Hi Andrea,

Nice post!

All good ideas and observations.

My only comment is when the parent Nazi try to compare their kids’ activities to mine I just tell them that I’m training my kids to be Ninjas and that’s why you can’t see them right now. They are stalking your children. That usually puts a stop to the conversation.

My kids swim and play with their friends. That is enough.



29 | coffeewithjulie

February 7th, 2010 at 8:42 am


I’m lovin’ all these comments!

Re the screaming at swim lessons: I attribute this to instinct. As humans, we have a self-preservation instinct to be afraid of things that can hurt us like heights, swimming, snakes, etc. Naturally, not everyone has this to the same degree. But I think that children being afraid of immersing their face in water is a natural response (not a bad thing). The point I was trying to make is that there often fear, even when you’re a child.

30 | Marianne

February 7th, 2010 at 9:07 am


As both a parent and an elementary teacher, I love this discussion.

Growing up, my parents rule of thumb was only two activities at a time. Girl Guides was always chosen, and then the other activity changed from season to season, and sometimes there wasn’t a second activity. The church youth choir didn’t count as another activity though, as our family went to church every Sunday anyway and the choir practice was right after church service for only half hour … and we got started in it so that we would have something to do while our parents socialized after church :) We had swimmimg lessons every summer, and we did have some skating lessons at our local outdoor community rink when we were first learning to skate.

Our daughter is 2, and so far her only organised activity has been one session of mom & tot swimming when I was on mat leave with her. As she grows, we’ll encourage her in activities that interest her (and swimming will be a must, at least to a minimum level of proficiency) but my husband and I are agreed that the guideline of 2 activities at a time is a good one. Especially considering the wide variety of activities offered within the school day, and the fact that she will be in an after-school program of some sort once she starts school.

31 | Miss Vicky

February 7th, 2010 at 9:14 am


oh yeah, you’re right. And some kids are naturally fearful, as Andrea suggested. I’m happy that G has a healthy respect for the things that might hurt him – but is still willing to take on challenges and try new things. But sometimes I have to repress my own mama bear instinct to allow him to test his limits and learn new skills – so not hovering while he tries the climbing wall at the playground and so on. It’s all about taking your cues from your kid, right?

32 | andrea

February 7th, 2010 at 9:14 am


This has been a really great discussion so far everyone… thank you. Your comments have added so much to this topic. I love reading about your experiences.

I’m finding it interesting that many of us are focusing on the activities, but what about when your kids aren’t at swimming or ballet? How do you play with your kids?

33 | Miss Vicky

February 7th, 2010 at 9:15 am


oops, that comment was in response to Julie’s last – Marianne and I posted at the same time!

Great discussion and great post.

34 | andrea

February 7th, 2010 at 9:17 am


It’s very very hard to let go and let your kid just do it.

I remember seeing a documentary once which featured a fearful mom who never let her little boy climb the monkey bars. The only thing he learned was to be afraid of the monkey bars, and to be afraid of hurting himself. This really stuck with me. I don’t want my kids to be fearful, I want them to be strong and accepting of challenges.

35 | Miss Vicky

February 7th, 2010 at 9:18 am


andrea, I’d tell you how we play, but my son has just shoved a drum into my hand and is about to start conducting. Gotta go.

36 | Stefania (Ingredients for Life)

February 7th, 2010 at 10:15 am


When the oldest (5 yrs) isn’t at school she’s often drawing and writing things out (signs, menus, warnings [she just visited the fire station], etc). She often plays grocery store, tea party and loves to read. She plays well with her youngest (3 yrs). The 3 year old loves to make believe and will often play dolls and dress up. They both love to dance and sing. When they’re not playing they will watch a movie or a show on Treehouse or Nick Jr.

Often they’re helping me in the kitchen or helping me tidy (tell the oldest that someone is coming over and she’s very quick to start cleaning).

As for playdates, our moms were just starting to join the workforce and moms working from home was unheard of so there may not have been playdates as we know them today but I remember getting together with other kids in a basement somewhere and the parents drinking, smoking and playing cards upstairs. Playdates have evolved, I think.

37 | Marianne

February 7th, 2010 at 2:08 pm


Well, for starters we just got back from the swimming pool, where Maya (2 years and 3 months old) led me through plenty of games involving floating puzzle pieces, boats, or a rubber ball, not to mention lots of splashing and jumping. I have always loved swimming and water play, so it’s a great thing to do when we can (though a lot of public swim times aren’t great for toddlers who nap in the afternoon and have an early bedtime).

Our favourite game right now is Hide-and-Seek, as it’s equally engaging for all parties. Making muffins with mommy is the next favourite thing to do, and I’ll soon be expanding that to baking other things with her.

We also do an awful lot of book reading in this house. We read to Maya, or Maya reads to her stufed animals. I LOVE books, and I am so thrilled that she already has an early love of reading. It’s great to share it with her. I do try to only buy storybooks that I won’t mind reading repeatedly.

The Tumblebooks website, accessible through the Ottawa Public Library’s website (under the link to media, I think) is another fabulous thing we do together. Mayaloves to watch and listen to the stories read aloud while shes its on my lap.
(and you can always multi-task by reading e-mail or blogs in another screen at the same time …)

38 | mrsgryphon

February 7th, 2010 at 4:44 pm


The “play” that my daughter (4 years old) enjoys the most involves putting her dolls and Calico Critters to bed… waking them up, feeding them, changing their clothes… and putting them back to bed so that we can do it all over again! She also loves to make up songs (rhyming is a big hit right now!), dance, colour, make play-doh creatures, practice her letters in her workbooks, stick stickers on any hard surface, play board games and Go Fish and help in the kitchen whenever she can. I’m hoping to have her making dinner herself by the time she’s 8 or so (haha!) (but she can already crack an egg perfectly, and is learning about fractions from measuring things!) She likes to play games on the computer, too, (mostly starfall.com and her Leapfrog ClickStart) and I’ve been surprised at how much she’s learning from the Webkinz site.

All of these are things that we do together, at least part of the time. Often, we’ll start playing together and I’ll try to transition it to some independent play time or encourage her to play with her little sister, too.

39 | Old School/New School Mom

February 7th, 2010 at 6:45 pm


My son is almost 2. And he prefers to play independently! He has a cardboard box full of mainly plastic cars that he likes to take out individually and line up on the table. Then he makes car noises with them. But if I “interrupt” his flow he dislikes it!

Thanks for this post! It was really informative!

40 | Rebecca

February 7th, 2010 at 8:15 pm


I love this post. I think play is so important, but it comes in various forms.

A few thoughts first: I think kids are far too overscheduled. School homework (don’t get me started), sports, lessons, every. night. of. the. week. Where are family dinners like Vicky said? And when there is ‘downtime’ can it really be enjoyed or are people just thinking about what’s next?

Also, anxiety and stress is growing among children. These hectic (adult-like schedules) I suspect are playing a role.

As for planned activities, I’ve done them, but to be honest, they are as much for me to get and out and interact as they are for the kids.

My son is very shy and reserved. While interaction and play is good for him, no matter how fun something may be, if he’s uncomfortable, he won’t enjoy. That’s just him.

As the kids get older, I fully support team sports etc. if they show interest. I believe in team work, introducing them to these opportunities etc. But I do worry about balancing the time.

Having said that, I love playing with the kids. As a SAHM, many hours of my day have to be doing something with them ;). However – I have always been honest that I can’t be ‘on’ the entire 11 hours I’m alone with them. My son had to learn that there was down time for both of us.

Some afternoons I would pick up a magazine with my snack and start reading. Surprisingly, know what happened? He would pick out some books, hop up on the couch and ‘read’ or leaf through his Chirp or play on his own. Independant play is very important. It’s during those moments by himself that he makes up games for his ‘guys’ or cars and it’s his own imagination.

Before his sister was born, we’d go to the playroom and he would play for a bit by himself before I started games/activities – I would get my coffee and check email. He started saying ‘mommy check email and drink coffee?’. yup. then we play pal ;)

These days don’t always happen, sometimes when I need to be doing something (company coming etc) all the kids want is me or my attention. But, they are young and need that

DH and I are both players. Again, with my son being home with me I had to find outlets for his energy etc. So I play hockey (and body check ;), wrestle, chase, am a horse at times etc.

We make up a lot of games. Hide and seek with any weird object. Fish baseball (using a stacking toy as bat and stuffed fish as ball), grocery store, tick tac toe on the wall using sticky notes, etc. but again, I would be so tired if I did this all day! we also dance, read, play computer and watch tv.

We craft, and love to bake.

The point is, we mix it up. Some of it I lead the way, but most of the time he takes the lead. Now that my daughter is getting bigger, we try to balance between activities both ages can do, with one – on – one games.

After supper, as a family, we’ve always done games before bed.

At the end of the day, what fun is playing if you don’t have fun?

41 | A Crafty Mom

February 7th, 2010 at 8:54 pm


Hello, my name is Shannon and my kids do nothing. :)

I’ve blogged a couple times in the past about my kids not being in any organized activities. Right now our schedule is totally clear – although, yes, they do take swimming lessons once or twice a year. And they are fortunate to have a mom who was a competitive figure skater and a coach to teach them skating at our neighbourhood outdoor rink. As far as this goes as they get older, I think I’ll just “go with the flow” and see how things progress. I trust my instincts and I’ve seen friends with over-scheduled children so I am pretty firm that that won’t be happening at our house.

I am currently still off work and home with my three kids. I personally feel that we have a very good balance in our lives and for some reason I am very fortunate to have three kids who all play well together, and who all play well independently. To all my friends and family members who scoffed at me for having three children so close together (they are 5, 4 and 2) – who has the last laugh??? I survived the first few years of hell and now am enjoying watching them all play together at the same time!

Because I am home with them a lot (the oldest two are barely in school for 2.5 hours and are home by 11:00 a.m. each day), I definitely do play with them a lot too. When the little one naps I do word games, board games, card games and puzzles with the boys. It is fun to have them at an age where we can all play a board game together. (Current fave game is Gobblet – SO much fun and my husband and I play on our own long after the kids have gone to bed!!).

I am a creative person so we tend to do a lot of role playing and creative games. In some of the studying I’ve done on child development, I learned how important it is to play with children and let them make the decisions and “lead” you. It really builds their self-confidence and hones their creativity. So even when I think it is ridiculous, I let them boss me around and tell me what to do – “you sit here, mommy, and be the wicked witch and we will run and hide and then you will come pretend to eat us all up”. We take turns letting someone choose . . . and even though it is not always fun for a 5 year old boy to dress his sister’s doll and push her around in a stroller, he does it and it is very empowering for the sibling that has chosen the “game”.

Other ways I “play” with the kids – we do lots of arts and crafts (that is my THING!), build forts, build towers, cook and bake together, play outside regularly (tag, hide and seek, sledding, other winter activities), and on days when we need it . . . we just lay on the floor rolling around tickling each other.

Great post, Andrea, and awesome comments too :)

42 | Redheadedmama

February 7th, 2010 at 9:33 pm


Great post! Re: scheduled activities, I will really encourage my daughter to play team sports once she is older, in spite of whether she’s really into it or not. For a number of reasons I won’t go into here, I think team sports are especially important for young girls. Of course, if she really hates it, I won’t push it, but I do wish I’d been pushed to do team sports when I was younger. I think it is good to get kids to try things out of their comfort zone to some extent.

Re: play – my daughter is only 3 and a half, and the most extroverted person I know! This translates into ALWAYS wanting to be with people (i.e., when no other kids are around, this means me!). I’m an introvert, so I sometimes have to take a moment for myself. Today I had to ask her to try to read quietly while mommy read her book. Phew! Some kids are definitely better at alone play than others :)

My husband is better at the stuff that tries my patience, such as playing lego for an hour or building forts. I’m better at baking, crafts, music and dancing – I’m more task oriented, but it sounds like that is pretty normal for women. I often wonder why that is? I do try to make sure I take time out for real play, even just 15 minutes, to really focus on my time with her – I’m usually good at games like hide ‘n seek, treasure hunts, acting out elaborate pretend princess and pirate storylines, reading. Another silly thing I’m good is involving the dog in our pretend storylines. Often he plays the part of big bad wolf, or monster, etc. Sometimes he even gets to wear a t-shirt. Poor dog. My daughter loves to be mock scared – we pretend we are hiding from the scary witch, stepmother, wolf, etc. Fairy tales have been great for her imagination!

Oh, and another very silly thing my 3 year old LOVES to do that is completely ridiculous and pretty original is act out World Wide Wrestling type wrestling with her dad. They have a before bedtime routine of dramatic wrestling and “ninja” moves they do. It sounds so silly, but she shrieks and laughs her head off the whole time!

Our family is also big into exercise and the outdoors, so I’m hoping that rubs off on my daughter as she grows up. She definitely loves exploring the beach at the cottage and can spend hours just wading and looking for rocks.

43 | Tali

February 8th, 2010 at 8:34 am


I haven’t been able to read ALL the comments, but I am so tired of the expected overscheduling of kids as well – my kids do swimming lessons (starting again in a couple weeks) because we go swimming TOGETHER all the time and I just want that to be relaxed and no-pressure, not with me trying to teach them all the time.

Also, I am a SAHM and I NEVER “play” with my kids. I do crafts with them, read, cook, go to the park, take walks, go to the library, make lego sculptures, but I don’t put on costumes and pretend to be a witch, or do the dollhouse thing with them. I don’t enjoy it and they need to be able to amuse themselves. We also don’t do TV, and I think that’s really taught the kids that they can have fun doing ANYTHING and don’t need to be amused by something/someone else. Last week, they found a stick, named it wormy and dressed it in socks and strips of material. This provided hours of fun, no joke.

44 | Elizabeth

February 10th, 2010 at 12:35 pm


So, reading through the posts, I see none of you are from Stittsville, ON (suburb of Ottawa).

Stittsville/Kanata are FULL of hyper-parents. My child CANNOT just go outside and play – there are crickets and tumbleweed rolling down the street in my neighbourhood. The park is ALWAYS empty and the only kids outside are the 14 year olds playing street hockey! There is not one child allowed out at the park without their security detail, or out riding their bikes as a pack of friends (my son is 8) or even out in each others backyards. The thought of making a “playdate” for an 8 year old is extremely embarassing if not totally unnecessary! ALL the kids my son hangs around with are NEVER home on the weekends – soccer, hockey, baseball, art classes, gymnastics, etc… and here is my poor child enrolled in only one activity (because he wanted it) and crying in my arms half the time because he wants so badly to play with someone but no one is around. I keep asking him if he wants to go tobaggoning or skating or to a movie with his Dad and I but his response is always the same, “I want to play with one of my friends.”

I think the Doc Zone documentary was dead on for the Ottawa suburb parents. You can’t believe how absolutely frustrating it is when you’re one of only 3 other parents you know who would LOVE to see your child and a group of their neighbourhood friends riding their bikes around the neighbourhood and having fun at the park. I would have no objection to going to the park to supervise, but at 8 years old, these kids can take care of themselves when they’re in a group especially in a neighbourhood park.

I raise my son like my mother raised me… outside and play, use your brain without me instructing you how to do it, have fun and come in DIRTY!

As a parent on our school’s council, I’ve come home many times with a bleeding tongue from having to bit hard at the audacity of some of the self-centered requests from parents NOT on council who come to a meeting to tell us how pissed off they are that they are not allowed in the school-yard EVEN when it’s been explained that for the very same reasons you don’t want other adults to have access to your child, other parents feel the same about you and you can’t expect 2 yard duty teachers to know who 1,600 parents are, especially when the school administration have a numerous amount of “no contact” orders regarding child access to a parent – that and the fact is that it is Ontario legislation that ALL visitors to the school (that includes the school-yard) MUST SIGN IN at the office. Parents want their children protected at school, but do not want the rules to apply to them and their hyper-parenting beliefs.

Yes, we care about our children, but some of us care about our children more to be concerned with the damage that hyper-parenting is doing to our children’s friends which spill over to our own children because the children who are “reality parented” will have to deal with the self-righteous, over-entitled and Me-Me attitudes of these spoiled children.

45 | SarahT.

August 3rd, 2011 at 4:40 pm


I may be a kid,I am Also your daughter andrea, but I like this backyard skating rink idea, I will suggest it to you later, for winter:)

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My name is Andrea and I live in the Westboro area of Ottawa with my husband Mark and our dog Piper who is kind of a big deal on Instagram. We also have two human daughters: Emma (20) and Sarah (18). During the day I work as a writer at The Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. I am a longtime Ottawa blogger and I've occupied this little corner of the WWW since 1999. The Fishbowl is my whiteboard, water cooler, and journal, all rolled into one. I'm passionate about healthy living, arts and culture, family travel, great gear, good food, and sharing the best of Ottawa for families. I also love vegetables, photography, gadgets, and great design.

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