Recently, I had a couple of sweet granddaughters for a sleepover. It was long-anticipated and long overdue. They were so happy to see each other, one being 6 and the other 7. I wanted everything to be perfect. I planned the snacks, the games, the movies, the activities and everything down to a tee. The one thing I didn't factor in was their needs.
One of the most beautiful words in a child's vocabulary is "betend."
"Betend you're the mom, and I'm the little girl and I'm going to school."
"Betend we're best friends, and we're going to a party and we need to put on make up."
"Betend I've just been robbed, and you're the superhero."
I love that word. Even before they know how to correctly pronounce it, they know what it is.
As soon as the girls were in my front door, they began to pretend. They knew what they wanted to do, and I quickly discovered my job was not hostess, but facilitator. Observer. Admirer. Silent watcher-over. Provider of tools.
Children need to pretend. More than event planners, they need silent partners. The need to explore and improvise. They need to turn pots and pans into musical instruments and blankets into castles. They need far less, "Don't make a mess!" and a lot more, "Clean up after you make a mess." Less, "Don't get your clothes and hands dirty." More, "Have fun. You can have a bath when you're finished."
This liberation even extends to my nickname. I remember planning what my future grandchildren would call me. I was partial to "granny." I was young. What happened when they actually came along was quite surprising to me. I let them choose. It wasn't up to me or to their parents. It was up to them and what they were comfortable with. So now, to Riley, I'm Mighty Bob. To Madeline, I'm Mamie. To Harry, I'm MayMay. To Makenna, I'm Granny. To Ella, Delta, Sage and Gideon, I'm Grandma. They chose, and we're all happy. There is no confusion or correction. It all works and when they are together, it doesn't seem to matter to them that they refer to me by different names.
So here are some tips on letting go of planning and facilitating more fun.
Playtime and play groups
Provide the props: Dress-up clothes can just be things you're getting rid of, don't have to be fancy. Kitchen gadgets — everything can be washed after. Recyclables for arts and crafts — clean egg cartons, lids, old newspapers and magazines, used copy paper, yarn and fabric scraps, throw in school glue, safe scissors, and they'll be set. Simple tools — screw drivers and screws, wood scraps, small hammer and nails, covert supervision. Blankets and chairs for constructing places to live.
Have a list of activities and games planned, but don't go to a lot of expense or trouble. Keep an eye on the play and if there is a lull, pull something out. Otherwise, let them lead the way with the fun they create themselves.
Even very young toddlers will create their own language and fun when left to their own devices. It's amazing to watch them communicate with one another. They may not be able to say the word "pretend," but they are constructing their own playtime. Provide them with colorful toys and let them play.
In addition to arts and crafts, consider letting them in the kitchen with free reign and reckless abandon. Tell them what's off-limits and let them create their own grub. Be there, but be inconspicuous. Don't hover, just make sure the firemen aren't called out.
Have boxes and bags of props. Odd combinations of things from around the house. Have them write and perform a play using every single item in the box or bag. If you have enough kids around, divide into teams and have them entertain one another. Bag might contain: an alarm clock, a rolling-pin, a pair of old boots, a children's book, a newspaper, and a box of cereal. Use your imagination and make the items as unrelated as possible to stretch their imaginations. Give them a time limit to make it more interesting. All adults need to gather, watch, and applaud.
The great outdoors
Encourage outdoor play when weather permits. Kids and electronics are a downward spiral. Tell them they can create their own realm out there — kingdom with fairies and ogres and wizards.
Facilitating children's play is one of the best ways to encourage their imaginations. Let them create worlds, crafts, foods, music, art, and busy minds. The more imagination they have, the less you will have to intervene and listen to the "I'm so bored" blues. Less hands on, more happy children.