I don’t play. I don’t do games.
When one of my colleagues in the industry asked me what educational games I would recommend I found myself thinking: What do I know about games? What do I know about playing?
I reached out to a few friends and did some cursory research but generally felt uninspired. As I dug a little deeper, I realized I was battling a familiar pang: mother guilt layered upon the recognition that I don’t play enough with my daughter.
I do laundry, I pack the bags, I obsess about whether or not we’ll make it out of the door on time for school, sports, playdate, doctor (fill in the blank). I make sure teeth are brushed, hair is done, clothes are on… but I don’t really play.
My husband, on the other hand, he’s very good at playing. He doesn’t mind sitting among a pile of dirty dishes and spilt milk at the breakfast bar for a daily game of Uno before school. He doesn’t mind sticky Candy Land pieces laying in maple syrup and half-eaten pancakes. If my daughter wants to play a game, he’s up for it. “Sure, we can squeeze in a quick game of Trouble before school.”
Sadly, I am not very good at playing or games — until everything else is done. Which is never.
I think this became particularly apparent for me this past weekend during my daughter’s playdate. The two girls were bouncing around, in LOVE with the dirt and animals and made a game of nearly everything. A sand pile became a castle for princesses, a freshly mowed lawn became a hill to roll on and a stretch of driveway quickly became a race track.
They then asked me if we could go take a walk together in the back fields. Internally I groaned, “There are ticks back there.” I thought to myself, I’ve got so much to do here; maybe they could just keep playing in their “castle.” They begged and I capitulated. We set off for our “adventure trek”, water bottles in tow. I brought my phone “just for photos” I told myself. But honestly, deep down, I knew that I wasn’t ready to disconnect.
As they ran up ahead I felt a twinge of sadness — “Why is it so hard for me to be in this moment?"
Why can’t I play?
As we neared the first field one girl noticed an Indian Paintbrush wildflower. She picked it and smelled it and giggled with glee, “let’s pick wildflowers.” I had a quick flashback to my early years — picking Indian Paintbrushes in our fields in Maine. I felt a pang, “Why can’t I enjoy these moments the way I used to…”
Why can’t I play?
We exited the woods path and came upon a larger field; the older girl shouted with glee “let’s run through the tall grass and feel it all over our bodies.” I heard my head say, “No, don’t do that. The deer sleep here. You will get ticks on you. You are going to get filthy and your mom is going to hate me for letting you play with my daughter.” But I stopped myself and watched her run, my daughter close behind. Wildflower petals, crickets, and critters jumped out of their way as they ran, arms spread wide through timothy stalks and cow fetch. It was glorious. My mind stopped, for a second, to watch their unabashed joy and complete one-ness with their play.
A red-tailed hawk swooped low, likely looking for the creatures the girls unearthed. It settled on a tree top 15 feet away and watched us.
The girls danced on. They began collecting wildflowers for their bouquets. I caught my mind again, shifting, “Why don’t you do this more — why don’t you enjoy this more?” and then I noticed myself glancing at my phone — “What time is it? What are we having for dinner? I have five errands to run before 7pm.” And then I chided myself for not being able to disconnect. It was a familiar pattern. Worry about what needs to get done. Beat myself up for not being more “present and in-the-moment”, worry more about not being a “better” more playful parent. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
Why can’t I play?
We rounded the bend. There were frogs in the pond and the girls were weighing the options: wet feet or frog catching? There was a new flower we hadn’t seen, and I heard them wonder aloud: Should they pick it? Or leave it be so that it could seed others? There was a smell of wild strawberries. The hawk called, swooped above us and flew away. I began to disconnect. My eyes filled for a moment. My shoulders sank; my breath got deeper. I forgot my phone. I remembered my youth. All five senses transported me back to a time when I did play. When I did do games. And it was lovely.
This was just a moment for me, but I’ve caught myself several times this week reminding myself to be present and to play. Not because I beat myself up for NOT being present but because being in the moment with children is a gift to yourself. I truly hope all of you are better at play than I am. But if you struggle, like I do, to disconnect, if you find your partners being the better “player,” if you long for the golden days of childhood where you didn’t worry about the “must-dos” and instead said “will do” to every game that came your way, remember my story.
- Say yes (if you can), the dishes will wait. I will not remember what we ate for dinner that night. Whether or not my daughter went to bed on time or if I completed the laundry that weekend. But I will remember — forever etched in my mind: the glorious moment when those two girls had me picking flowers and playing in the field.
- Don’t judge yourself. The negative self-talk and “shoulds” get in the way of play.
- Enter a child’s world (if you can). It’s often a lovely place to be.
- If you find yourself distracted: go back to the senses. What are the colors, smells, touches, and noises?
- It’s okay if it takes practice and you check your phone and lose the moment. You can bring yourself back. It’s worth the practice.
*This article was originally published in Psych Central focused on summertime games.