I was standing near the shipwreck, angling myself so I could keep one eye on my daughter digging in the gravel pit and one eye on my son as he climbed up and down the mini bridge. Minutes passed, and for the most part, I stayed where I was, willing myself not to interrupt my children’s play and holding back even as I watched a boy treat my daughter unkindly. To a stranger, it might have appeared that I was disengaged and not really watching any kids, but really, I had my eye on both while I tried to give them space to be immersed in their play and explore and learn independently.
As I stood there, I listened as a dad excitedly showed his child something neat about the water area. They remained for a few moments, and then just as quickly, the dad said, “Okay, let’s go, let’s see what else there is.”
“Wait I just want to try-”
“No, c’mon, we have to see the other exhibits!” the dad insisted.
After a moment, his child reluctantly left the water area and trekked after his father. As I stood there, unhurried as my daughter continued to scoop gravel and my son continued to climb up and down, it occurred to me that just a year ago, I had been just like this father. It had been our first time visiting this museum, and we approached our trip with all the enthusiasm of tourists. We pushed through to make sure we went to every room, saw every exhibit and did every activity. No xylophone would go unplayed, and no play structure would go unclimbed. If there was paint, we brushed it and if there was art, we created, even if only for a couple minutes, before moving along to the next activity.
In the end, we felt accomplished. We sure saw a lot. She had a good time, right? I think?
The next time we came back, I knew which rooms I was okay with skipping, and we went to the places I thought the kids would enjoy best. They had a pretty good time, but I was still directing a lot of the day, pointing out things I thought were cool, and trying to get my daughter to see how fun this art activity was, even if she only seemed mildly interested. She mostly wanted to climb about in the playground, but I remember thinking, We have a ton of playgrounds I could take you to anytime where we live! Let’s not waste our time there, and let’s go check out all the exhibits instead. I still let her play, but always with a sense of FOMO pushing at me. Let’s go, let’s go! There’s so much to do!
Today’s visit, however, felt markedly different. Maybe it’s because it was our third visit, or maybe it’s because I just felt like taking it easy, or maybe I’m a different mom than I used to be. But it was definitely different. When we walked in, we watched as other kids tapped away at the xylophones that greeted us at the entrance, but I didn’t try to get my children to go try it out. They wanted to munch on crackers, and I let them be.
When we walked past the music circle with drums and (more) xylophones and bubbles and hula hoops- so much to touch and see and hear and feel and DO!!!- I suggested that they bang a little and make some noise. Once again, crackers prevailed, and I let it be. We walked right on by, past the water play area, and it wasn’t until they spotted all the activity with the giant blue blocks that snacks were voluntarily set aside for play. I sneakily stashed them away and we eventually made our way through the Daniel Tiger exhibit and then over to the art area.
This is where I really surprised myself. The kids had fun with the Flubber and painting on walls- both cool and novel and things we don’t usually play with at home. Yay. But do you know where my little girl ended up spending the bulk of her time? At a little table with some scraps of paper, gluesticks, and a pair of scissors. Stuff we definitely already have at home. She literally sat for minutes upon minutes snipping up tiny shreds of paper, carefully gluing them down, and then trimming off shards of paper around the edge until she had an egg-shaped creation that she was extremely proud of.
It took a long time. I had to read her little brother several books, try to entertain him with blocks, paint, hand-washing, wall magnets, and a totally separate art room full of stickers. I worked hard to buy her lots of time so she could tinker and make. In the end, I have no idea what she created and I don’t think she did either, but she was really into it and I tried to let her be immersed in it. If anything, I appreciate that she was developing the ability to have sustained concentration on one activity.
It was the same at the gravel pit. Seriously, how long does a child really need to shovel gravel into a raised hole? How many times until the activity gets old?
I think she could have played there all day. Did it occur to me that we have sand pits and rocks in our area? Yes. Was I bothered by the boy nearby who was being a little difficult to play with? Yes. But she was really into this, and I was gonna let her be. And she was probably building some thicker skin as she endured his mild rudeness.
On our way out, I had promised my son some more time at the big blue blocks. As he crawled about in the mayhem of blocks, my daughter found her way to a simple exhibit off to the side. It was a tire with several long poles standing up, each with a stack of washers sitting on the bottom. She quickly figured out how to push the washers up and watched, mesmerized, as the washers spun their way down the threaded poles. The big ones dropped quickly, but the small ones took a while to wind their way down.
This might have been her favorite thing all day. This, or the gravel. I had expected the fancy Daniel Tiger exhibit to win her heart, but in the end, loose parts and upcycled metals took the gold.
All day, I had the same thought in my head: I don’t really know what she’s learning right now, but I know she’s learning something. Sometimes, it was probably learning to navigate the social trickiness that is an unkind child throwing gravel. Maybe it was learning the grip and angle for scissors to snip the paper just so. Maybe it was some sense for physics, as she poured shovel after shovel of gravel down the chute. Maybe it’s simply the ability to focus on one thing for a long time, or to enjoy an unhurried moment in childhood.
I don’t think it would have been the same if I had pushed my kids to do all the things I actually wanted them to do. I had to fight the urge to move us along to the big rope spider web in the middle of the playground area, or to go for a short hike to explore the nature area more. I had packed a change of clothes so they could go crazy in the big water area, but they walked right past it. I thought about insisting that we stop playing with spinning washers after the first eight or so minutes of it. But then I forced myself to stand there and let the kids take it in and absorb whatever they were absorbing. They were so content- why distract them and encourage them to simply flit from one activity to the next?
I’m still working on it. Just this past weekend at a water park, I heard myself repeatedly trying to convince my daughter to come check out the river with floating inner tubes, but all she wanted to do was splash about in the wave pool. I was SO SURE she’d have a blast at the inner tubes, but since I had written up half of this post already, I was able to self-talk myself away from insisting further and just let her be. She was very happy… and then so was I. Inner tubes will always be there, but the joy of being three and sitting in one foot of water will not.
I completely understand the urge to show our kids how cool everything is and the desire to unveil the excitement of something novel, especially at kid parks, museums, or trips. I think it’s great in a lot of ways, and will surely continue to do it. Kids love it when we get into it and are excited with them, and it’s a lot more fun for us when we are engaged, too!
I also think there is also merit to letting your kids simmer and soak in one activity, and to really immerse themselves in play, too. They develop long-distance learning muscles which quick sprints from one activity to the next can’t. Sometimes, less is more.
I know there are already so many parents that naturally do this, but I wrote this because it’s a new mentality for me to take on when I bring my kids places, especially for the first time. Over time, I hope my kids get a healthy balance of actively exploring and also getting really drawn into one activity.