Fantasy play and Screen Time

I am a mom of contradictions.

After a 6 am whining session that ended with L. throwing my TV remote at me, I decided we needed a screen time detox. No cartoons before 9 am. No cartoons for longer than an hour. Only ones that aren’t just bright colours and noise.

And then at nap time G. got her tablet and watched YouTube for 3 hours. C’est la vie.

It’s important though, to have balance. I hear it all the time in the discussion around food. Try not to give junk food power. Don’t make it forbidden, that makes it more enticing. No one food is inherently “bad” or “good”. It’s all just food, the important part is finding the balance. Some food feeds your body, some food feeds your soul, and both should be acknowledged.

In my work, I’m a play advocate. I’m 100% play focused. I don’t do “crafts” unless the kids want to. I don’t do circle time. I don’t have any academically inclined activities like letters and numbers unless the kids are interested in it. My classroom plays and plays hard. I talk a good game about the negative effects of too much screen time on young children. I know how it affects eye muscle development. I know how it affects neural development. I know how it affects speech and language development.

At home, I know that if I don’t get a break, I will lose what little progress I’ve made. Quiet time where I can choose what I want to do rather than follow what my children want to do is important for my own mental health.

However, I have discovered an interesting consequence of G.’s screen time that I didn’t see coming. She has been watching a series on YouTube of a girl who plays barbies and acts out all kinds of scenarios, different characters, different life experiences. Even since, G.’s own dramatic play has grown exponentially. She has new conversations, new experiences, and she’s more willing to play by herself for much longer than she ever has been. She’s always kind of been the kid who wants to roughhouse, who jumps all over everything, who wants to ride bikes and climb and yell and dance. Which is fantastic. I love this about her. However, I have a house full of toys that have never been touched because she had no interest in independent play. Now she’s playing. She’s world-building in a way that she never has before.

There’s a well-known researching on children’s play named Vivian Paley, and I’ve been re-reading her work on fantasy play in children, and it’s fascinating watching it play out in real time right in front of me. She talks about how fantasy play is universal, they follow the same themes and the same scripts. I’ve heard the phrase “mom, pretend you’re… and I’m….” so many times in the last month that I’ve lose count. And it’s the same phrase that Paley observed in her research. There was an interesting point made though – we have lost touch with the story tellers of our culture, the elders and grandparents who used to pass down fairy tales and other stories. Now, children get these stories from the play of others. I’ve also been following a respectful parenting Instagram account that shared a reel about worthwhile TV shows, what makes a TV show overstimulating and how to find shows that are better for your children, and they made an interesting point about how high quality children’s programming can actually build on children’s dramatic and fantasy play skills. This isn’t a point I ever really thought about beforehand. Outside of daycare, G. has no one to play with other than a one year old brother. It isn’t like before, where we played with older cousins, or neighbourhood children. Covid meant that we have been alone for so many months. For such a social child, this has been especially hard for her. In screen time, she has found a new way to play, new narratives to explore, new fantasies to play out. She has found a new source of story telling that wasn’t accessible to her before. Who am I to say that this is a bad thing?

So yeah. We screen time. But, we do it responsibly. And when we notice it’s too much – when they have a hard time transitioning away, when they start to stare obsessively like someone on a heroin high, when it causes tantrums and becomes a NEED – then we take a break and we detox for a little while.

It’s balance. It’s a contradiction. It’s finding a way to parent in a modern world with modern tools and limited access to social supports. It’s life. I’m still going to preach limited screen time, but I’m going to do it in a realistic way, offering realistic suggestions. Because I’ve seen the benefits of how screen time can affect play, and it isn’t all bad. Come join me on the dark side.

The Importance of Watching

I think, sometimes, as an ECE, I forget to use what I know about children in the context of my own home. I have all these play experiences set up, pretty much any kind of toy you can imagine, but I forget to do the rest of it – observing, documenting, reflecting, planning.

Take this week. We were home all week because L. was a close contact to someone with Covid. So, I plan for all this time home. We have sensory bins, cars, blocks, a play kitchen, a ball pit, all these wonderful things. L. just wants to sit and drive his cars, and that’s what he did. G. just wanted the sensory bins. And good lord. I drove myself absolutely nuts with the idea of “She isn’t playing with it right!”

Seriously. What the fuck?!

Apparently there is a right and a wrong way to play with water beads. Who knew?!

After several days of constantly saying Please stop pouring the water beads on the floor! and You’re getting sand everywhere, try to keep it on the table at least!, I gave in and I just watched and I discovered she was baking. She was filling small containers with sand and making cupcakes with bead sprinkles, she was making donuts with and without play dough icing. She made coffee to drink with our sweet treat. I was so obsessed with the mess (that piece of anxiety has a whole other post hahah) that I almost missed what was really going on.

So, I decided fuck it, if she wants to bake, let’s do this thing. That afternoon, I left the kids with the hubby and I went to the dollar store. I bought flour, salt, vinegar, baking soda, baking powder, lemon juice, corn starch, vegetable oil, plastic condiment containers, spray bottles, and little bowls. It was the best 20$ I ever spent.

Of course, I began with the carefully laid out materials, set out attractively, with the mixing bowl and the spoons. That lasted about 36 seconds. Once she realized that she could just do whatever she wanted, it was on. The first round, she mostly just mixed liquids. She added different food colourings, she wanted the oil and water bubbles dance, then she added in some of the dry ingredients and watched how the colours swirled and how the textures changed as she added different ingredients to the mix. In the end, she used every bit of her “science”. Thank god I bought doubles of everything.

The next day, she went with the dry ingredients first, then experimented with how the different liquids interacted with each other. She was thrilled when she learned that lemon juice reacts with baking soda the same way vinegar does (same reaction, less smelly). As she mixed everything together, she told me that it felt like dough, and asked if she could eat it. I told her to go for it, but she didn’t really want to follow through. She watched how the coloured liquids made the dough have different layers of colour throughout, she felt the difference between the gritty salt and the soft flour. It was a full sensory experience.

And that was it. She mixed and she kneaded, and she was so involved in her play that an hour and half went by before she was ready to move on. And honestly, the mess took less than 10 minutes to clean, so I don’t know why I was so fixated on that. Today, she was playing with a set of stacking rings – again, they were donuts. Maybe this week we’ll try to make our own donuts; I’m pretty much down with anything that ends with donuts. Maybe we’ll make our own bread. Maybe she’ll be over it in a few days. Who knows?

I just know, the next time I’m obsessed with the mess, with them not playing with things “right”, it’ll be my reminder. Just watch. Just wait. Something amazing will come, just wait and see.

How it Began vs How it’s Going

L. had a child in his class be diagnosed with Covid19 this past week, so we’ve been quarantining at home for the last week. My hubby was home too, so it’s just been a houseful for the last week. There’s been reno’s and playtime and snacks. So many snacks.

Now that our kitchen is finally getting done, I decided to reorganize our kids supply cupboard. I got new storage containers of different sizes, new squeeze bottles and shakers and strainers, and beads and mini erasers, and all these things that could be set out as table top activities for my kids to do.

Of course, because they’re my kids, they didn’t want to do any of the things I had planned for them to do with it.

The first thing G. did was use the beads for filling the muffin tin, rather than beading because of course. She made me muffins, which I had to eat by dumping back into the bucket – her exact instructions. And then she took the mini playdoh cups and stuffed them full of beads to make donuts, and then she threw the kinetic sand in for good measure. L. took the mini erasers, threw them all on the floor, laughed at the pictures, cried to join his sister, put the playdoh in his mouth, and then ran off to play with his cars.

Sometimes I forget that how my children like to play. I spend all day watching children play, learning their quirks and their likes and their strengths. I forget to do that with my kids. I bring out this experiences that have no meaning for them, or just aren’t something they like to do, or I get stressed out when they don’t do something the “right” way. I forget how much G. likes to bake, and how much L. likes to move things. I should be setting up mixing and measuring stations for her and ramps for him, but no. I have to set up the “proper” play experiences, like puzzles, or blocks, or all these things they have no interest in.

So honestly, that’s what this is. It’s going to be learning stories about my children. I’m going to honour their play experiences the same way that I would any of my children at work. I’m going to relearn who my children are and what they know and all the beautiful things they bring to the table if I just let them be.

Follow along to see how it goes. You’ll likely see my lose my mind, one mess at a time.