There is a certain scenario that my son liked to play with me when he was four years old. We’d make a house, a train and a ticket booth out of Lego Duplo blocks. A conductor would come to the house, pick up a guy and his Dalmation and take them to the dinosaur museum, which actually housed real dinosaurs and seemed sort of terrifying except that the dinosaurs were always fairly reassuring that they didn’t intended to eat the guy or his dog.
I, of course, played the voice of the dog. So everything I said had a “ruff-ruff” before and after it. Like, “Ruff-ruff, oh no I think that’s a giganotosaurus, ruff!”
It was totally amusing the first, eh, four times we played it. By round 83, it had lost a lot of its appeal for me.
I never was much of a fan of pretend play. Give me a stack of board games or some crayons or a trampoline and I’m totally on board. Feed me endless courses of fake plastic food and I want to crawl into a hole. It felt like the scenarios could drag on and on and on with no end in sight.
I wish I had read this piece in Slate back then because it might have given me the perfect way to balance my son’s need for play repetition and my need to not get stuck in dino museum land forever:
Pour pure attention into them for a period of time, dropping all other activities and doing whatever they want. This sounds onerous at first glance, but is actually really freeing in practice — you put your phone away (everyone agrees this is a must), stop thinking about dinner prep, and just float on the tides of childish whim for a while by seeing what the kid is doing.
I could have set a timer. Twenty minutes once a day to pretend the hell out of those Legos. If we’ve only got 20 minutes, maybe I might challenge myself to see how many “ruffs” I could muster (100? 1,000??) or how many dinosaurs we could almost be attacked by.
Twenty minutes is not a hard and fast rule
I simply picked a number. Maybe you’ve only got 15 minutes of pretend-plastic-food-eating in you. Maybe you want to break it up into two tens—10 minutes in the morning and 10 in the afternoon or evening. Or maybe you’ve got 30 minutes in you! The amount of time is less important than the intentional act of dedicated playtime and connection.
Put the phone away
Put it away. Put it up on a shelf, put it in a drawer, put it in another room. (Do not put it in your back pocket, for that is too tempting.) They will notice they’ve got your full attention and you will feel less guilty about all the other distracted moments throughout the day.
Think of it as quality time
You certainly don’t want your kid to feel like this 20 minutes is yet another chore you must complete each day. An excited, “Ooooh, it’s 20-minute play time!” can go a long way in making your child feel like this is a treat for both of you, a welcomed break in an otherwise busy day.