Monday, January 3, 2011

On playing with toddlers

It has occurred to me recently, with something of a start, that I think I play less with my 22-month-old than I did with her sisters (now 7 and 5) when they were her age.

I certainly spend as much time with her - truth be told, possibly more, as I haven't worked in the office since her birth, whereas I did part-time / occasional work away from home when both the other two were in the 18-month-to-3 age range. I read just as many books to her as I did to them; we cuddle as much and talk as much; and we spend as much, if not more, time outdoors together. But actual time where I sit down and play with her at home is more limited.

This is partly, I'm sure, because having two older sisters puts her in a really different situation than they were in at her age and stage. Firstly, of course, she has two excellent and very patient playmates in her big sisters, and often she will opt to play with them rather than with my partner or I, even if we are available. The big kids will help her build with blocks, will play chasey and hide-and-seek with her, will play with their Zhou Zhou pets and Barbies and include her in the game, will set up the train tracks in intricate loops for her, and so on. This is all very good, naturally, and the last thing I want to do is discourage it.

The other reason for me getting down on the floor less with her has been a logistical one. We are just busier, and home for less stretches of time, than we were back then. When my eldest, A, was the age C is now, Friday morning playgroup represented the sum total of our weekly commitments, and with E being so tiny (just 6 weeks old), we spent an awful lot of days just hanging out together. Even by the time E was almost 2, our locked-in commitments had only expanded marginally to include 2 sessions of 3-year-old kinder for A. Basically, the flow of our weeks was pretty organic and pretty fluid. This doesn't mean that we didn't do anything, of course - those were busy years too - but it does mean that the number of places we had to be at specific times was drastically lower.

Today my partner has taken my elder two kids out for a Daddy day (which is to include McDonald's, video game arcade, and seeing Megamind at the cinemas - very little of which appeals to me, but that's what makes it a Daddy day!) This left C and I at home together at 11am, with about an hour and a half to go before her nap, the housework and laundry (jobs I often jump on when the big kids vacate) close to finished, and the last of our baking just coming out of the oven. C looked at me a little pensively, and said, "Mummy, Daddy, big gels, go? C and Mummy go too?"

"No, honey," I explained, "C and Mummy will stay here. Let's play something together. What would you like to play?"
I wondered if this was going to be too open-ended a question for her, but she instantly broke into a grin and said, "Twains! Mummy set up twains! We race Embily!"

So we got out the train set and I laid out a complicated triple track for her, with her assiduously squatting by my side and handing me pieces. "'Elping Mummy!" she announced proudly each time. After we'd raced the trains around the tracks for 10 minutes or so, she took my hand and led me into the lounge room, where she opened her box of Duplo and said, "Mummu? Dumo bwocks?"

We played with her Duplo for half an hour, building, demolishing, building again, playing with the duplo pets ("Meow, Meow, Mummy!" giggled the toddler as she moved the plastic cat towards me), running the duplo cars over the carpet and over each other ("Mummy be a woad! Bwoom bwoom, car!") C concentrated, laughed, talked, asked me questions, and was delightful to be with in every possible way. I enjoyed myself immensely, feeling very relaxed and very in the moment with her.

Later, we played bouncing games with her on my knee (This is the Way the Ladies Ride on so forth), then we read a few books before it was time for her breastfeed and bed.

As I left her bedroom at 12:45, with her sound asleep in her cot, I thought what a great time we'd had. Not only had C really enjoyed herself (and it was so evident that she had), but I had too, and I was struck by the notion that this was the one missing element in my daily parenting of C. She is nurtured and loved and encouraged and fed and read to; she gets exercise and social play and outings and fun; she draws and paints at least as often as her sisters did (and often under their supervision), and she cooks with me all the time. But often, the contingencies of our busy routine mean that she plays in proximity to me, with my verbal participation or encouragement, rather than me actually playing *with* her.

This makes me a little sad, to think that I've not given this necessary and wonderful element of our relationship the attention it deserves. However, it also makes me determined to build time for C-and-Mummy play into most days, even if it can't always be the concentrated 90 minutes we were able to have today. After all, I consciously build in talking time for my eldest, who needs and wants her 20-minute bedtime chat with me daily, and reading time for the 5-year-old, where we snuggle and read her latest book for 30 minutes together, uninterrupted. Spending time playing with C is no less necessary or rewarding, and I'm going to do my best to ensure it happens.

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