As a child, I was a complete bookworm and still am today. I simply adored books: the pictures, the words, the imaginary worlds books conjured up in my mind. From an early age, my father read to me and also made up stories. I was a good reader by the time I started school at 4 years of age.
I played alot too: I had a core group of little friends and we would play in one another's houses and gardens, and also in the street. I was in daycare from 8 months old so I had lots of opportunities to play with others from an early age. But as I was also an only child of working parents, I quickly became proficient at playing on my own. I was always busy and enacted many make believe scenarios alone.
You see, my parents were not the type of parents to actively play with children. My memories of childhood involve long weekends playing beside them as they cooked, cleaned, gardened, read the papers, sat and chatted. Though they didn't play with me, they involved me in everything they did - from gardening and hanging out the washing, to going out shopping and visiting castles or museums or zoos or on holiday. They also talked with me alot. And, of course, read to me. But actually play with me? No.
I am convinced that my keen imagination, my love of books and my ability to play happily alone for hours on end from a very early age were largely due to my parents not hovering around me all the time.
I have my own child now and I have turned out exactly like my own parents: I love reading to Little Planet and have made it a habit of reading to her since she was a newborn. At 22 months (today!), she loves books - she has her favourites and she will pick books off the bookshelf and pretend to read. I also chat with her alot and have talked with her, again, since she was a newborn. The constant chatter has paid off: at 22 months she is talking in sentences, has a huge vocabulary and can happily tell me what she did this morning or yesterday when I ask her. And I've sung to her so much that she can now sing several songs and rhymes all by herself and unprompted.
But I am not and never have been good at playing with her. I show her how to play with things but then I step back and leave her alone to get on with it. If I see her struggling with something, I try and hold back and let her work it out herself. Other mothers I know were and still are forever getting on the floor and playing with their children, but quite simply I find it boring. I am happy to go to the park with her and chase her around the garden, and of course read to and chat and sing with her. But actually playing? I would prefer to read, write, cook, catch up on family gossip, generally relax. It's the weekend, for goodness sake!
Having said all that, as she gets older, becomes more communicative, more engaged and imaginative, it's much more of a pleasure for me to play and discover my own playful side. But...
I guess you would say that my style of parenting is of the "benign neglect" variety.* I don't feel guilty about this: she has five little friends who she plays with at daycare all week long; she doesn't need me to be another playmate. I like to think that if I was a stay-at-home-mum then I would play with her more but also that I would send her to regular playgroups, and still encourage in her long periods of independent play.
She's clingy when she's in a stroppy mood or feeling under the weather, but 90% of the time she plays terrifically well on her own. She has done since she was just a few months old. My little toddler is not yet two but she has what I consider to be a great gift for someone so young: she can potter around the house and play freely and contentedly for long periods of time on her own. Often whilst I am in another room, I can hear her chatting merrily to herself and to her toys. And when she needs me, she finds me ("Mummy, what you doing?").
This Easter Monday, for example, whilst I cooked, read and generally pottered about in the kitchen, she spent an entire afternoon in the garden wheeling her dollies around in their buggies, feeding them plastic and wooden food she had cooked for them in her saucepans, giving them a bath, changing their nappies, scolding them, cuddling them, giving them bottles of milk. She also sang songs, watched planes flying high in the sky, watched the "trees dancing" in the wind, ran up and down ("Ready steady go!!"), kicked a ball about and chatted to various imaginary people on her pretend mobile phone (really an old TV remote). Every so often she would wave at me and say, "Hello Mummy!" and every so often I would go out to help her wash her dolly or simply to have a cuddle and a chat.
Her ability to play independently and her imagination, for a 22 month old, is amazing. And I am convinced it is largely because I simply let her be.
* Another example of my benign neglect style of parenting is that I have never childproofed our home: no stairgates, no DVD protectors, no cupboard childproof locks, no keeping precious ornaments out of her reach... Ever since she started to crawl, I warned her away from certain areas or things and it's rarely been a problem. It means that when she visits other people's houses, she knows instinctively what is off limits to her. At daycare, she's not the toddler trying to open cupboards or stick pencils into the DVD or reach up for the framed photo on the shelf. Certainly my own parents never childproofed our houses when I was young. But perhaps this is another post.