When you finally escape the house on a Mississippi-hot summer day, the best possible way to reclaim your sanity is to enjoy a good book next to a cold pool. However, if you’re the kind of reader that I am, i.e. you might accidentally let a small child drown before you can remember to look up from your book, an excellent alternative is to invite an old friend, and several young playmates, to accompany you. Sometime last summer I was waiting at the pool with the kids for my childhood friend, Leah, and her children to join us and the girls wanted me to get in the water to play mermaids. I don’t mind racing them around the pool with our feet clasped together into “fins”, and I really don’t mind beating them. But in this particular game, I was also required to answer to “Celestia” and reenact scenes inspired by animated B movies that poor, cable-deprived children hungrily devour as fast as Netflix and grandparents will allow.
Of all my flaws, or at least the ones that are glaring and daring to be acknowledged, I have always considered this to be the biggest, rustiest chink in my parenting armor: pretending. Not all pretending, though, because I can pretend that there is no ice cream in the freezer and I can pretend that a fall from the monkey bars didn’t just make me nauseous but when we start changing our voices and speaking with accents and calling ourselves 5 syllable names…I’m out.
To save myself from the painful process of “pretending”, I created a diversion. With a whisper of mystery I offered up the most irresistible bait: a story from my way-way-back-when-I-was-a-little-girl past. “Did I ever tell you about my friend, Leah, and the games we used to play?” It wasn’t very creative, but they were hooked, and so I began telling them about how much I used to love playing at Leah’s house when we were girls because she always had the best toys. Well, I had officially bitten off more than I could chew because they wanted details and the extent of my recollection was the shadow of a memory of a Barbie mansion. I did my best to fill the time with a story about how Leah and I played Barbies together until the girls, as far from satiated as they are apt to be, wanted to know what other amazing toys we played with at Leah’s house. “You’ll just have to ask Ms. Leah when she gets here,” I suggested smugly, imagining how she’d be peppered with questions before she had both feet out of the car.
When they finally arrived, guess who had two, cute, new, short people to play with but bigger fish to fry. Leah probably hadn’t even put her sunscreen on before Nora Ruth asked, “Ms. Leah, Mommy says you had a Barbie mansion and lots of cool toys and she used to love going to your house to play. What kinds of toys did you have?”
Leah snorted, “Ha! None that your mommy ever wanted to play with. She’d come over and stick her nose in a book and I’d get so mad because she wouldn’t play with me!”
I hadn’t skipped that part of the story, I had just utterly forgotten it! But my eldest, who was now having a turn at looking smug, didn’t seem too surprised. What an opportune time to be reminded of my past “play” failures.
Putting a good book down is still a trial for me and there are more than a few friends out there who felt ignored (or pissed off) when I couldn’t manage an upward glance to answer a question or accept an invitation or take my turn in whatever game required my minimal participation. Sometimes it was possible to be prodded, or more likely shamed, into pulling my nose out of my book but, just as often, it was not. I have several patient friends out there rolling their eyes at the fact that I am just now figuring out what you endured to be my friend.
I have a horribly hazy memory of most things. I vaguely remember playing “pretend”, mostly with my siblings, but I had no recollection of being a bore of a friend until Leah reminded me that day. Thank you, Leah! I am not awful at pretending and playing because I am old and tired and lazy. I’ve never been good at those things!
Thanks to this epiphany, I no longer feel like a washed-up adult because I groan inwardly at being cast as “Celestia” and I don’t feel overridden with guilt for scoffing and refusing to “put on makeup for the dance”. As a middle ground, I build things, play wiffle ball, color in their coloring books, put together puzzles, play hangman, play “spider” in the pool, and enjoy rainbow looming more than any busy, sane adult should. I assume that these games are more engaging for me because my practical interest is in watching them learn, complete, practice, succeed, or fail and try again. But there is another middle ground that is slowly, but surely, developing: both of my girls are becoming readers, themselves.
With Nora Ruth, it started around the end of Kindergarten when she finally learned enough sight words and spelling patterns to become a fully-independent reader. It was like watching a space shuttle take-off, so much gas and fire and noise at the beginning and then a rapid, arcadian, limitless soaring. As she soared through those books and past other milestones I celebrated when she gleefully discovered what “reading in her head” (silent reading) felt like, I noticed when she seemed to gravitate towards a particular genre, historical fiction or realistic fiction as opposed to my most-guilty pleasure, fantasy, and I smiled with complete understanding when she groaned over putting her book down for supper or asked to carry it along in the car to wherever we were going. I’ve even seen her, on more than one occasion, sit down at a friend’s house with an unfamiliar book, pouring through the pages, while her neglected playmate makes various unsuccessful plays for her attention.
Now it is Alliene’s turn to unlock the magic of the written word and to soar away to wherever the story takes her. I can’t go along with her, but I watch as she still struggles in this in-between zone, unable to deal completely with every text she chooses. And she hasn’t figured out yet how to “read in her head”, a fact which confounds and disturbs her elder sister immensely, as she has long forgotten the time that she asked me, “Mommy, how are you reading that when I don’t hear any words coming out of your mouth?”. But Alliene recently reached an unofficial milestone, acquiring a reading behavior that, in our house carries significant gravity and makes me giggle with joy. Unable to pause the story when necessity dictates, she carries her book around with her. First, and still most frequently, it goes to the toilet with her. (Come on, readers, you know you do it!) But every now and then, it migrates further, on a car ride, to the playground, outside on the patio.
I couldn’t help myself; I took a photo the very first time it happened, my inspiration for this written snapshot of this particular part of their childhood and development. As odd as it may seem, hopefully this post clarifies why I felt so ecstatic in that moment. And its not just because I see less requests for “Celestia” impressions on the horizon. While there was lots of “play” that I struggled with, the “play” that I did accomplish is coming to fruition and I know, personally, how much joy there is to be gained in the fruits of those labors as they become readers and writers.
(Click HERE to see a video that I made of Nora Ruth, age 3, reading her book in the room that my family refers to as “The Library”. )
There’s a substantial debate about which methods are developmentally appropriate and should be taught, especially in kindergarten classrooms. Most people agree that “play” is developmentally appropriate and is not getting its due in today’s early-childhood classrooms. Some are pretty angry and go so far as to characterize kindergarten classrooms as modern-day sweatshops where things like rigor, phonics instruction, and math drill and memorization are demanded from brow-beaten youngsters. The voice that gets drowned out is the one explaining that language and cognitive development occur first and foremost at home, from the moment of birth, before birth even, as we know that babies hear and recognize their mother’s voice from inside the womb. From the moment a child is born, language and learning must be fostered by parents and caregivers daily, while we sing, talk, discuss, read, teach, and yes, I suppose, play.
(Speaking of play, Allie’s Game, is a blog post you must read to see that I am not the only parent with “play” limitations.)