The “right way” toddlers should play

The right way to play-baby swing
My toddler doesn’t always play the “right way.” For instance, he actually complains when I try to sit him in a swing. Instead, he wants to be on the ground so that he can pull the swing, let go and watch it sway back and forth. He has even added a few variations of this game: he’ll grab the swing and pull it out to the side to see it sway left and right instead of forward and back. And each time he does this, he squeals with delight, as if he has just discovered the most entertaining game ever.

This reminded me of a recent comment from SSBE reader Oster’s Mom from Discover and Devour. In my post Libraries do not make good venues for play dates, she writes:

I don’t understand why some librarians are angry with the children when they are playing (or in your case, stacking up books). Isn’t that one of the points of a public library? To engage the children in books? It doesn’t mean they have to ALWAYS read the book. They are exposed to it.

In that post, I mentioned how one of my toddler’s friends spent a good chunk of the time pulling out books from the shelves and stacking them on a table. I considered this perfectly normal; unfortunately the librarian did not, and complained loudly why kids keep doing this. Oster’s Mom brings up a good point that books aren’t meant to be just read. Sure, that’s their primary function, but to a toddler, books offer so much more than reading a story. And in LO’s friend’s case, they offered an opportunity for him to practice pulling objects and stacking a neat pile.

The right way to play-toy fire truck
When my toddler was younger, I used to cringe when I would see him head towards his fire truck but, rather than ride it, he would scrutinize the underside or fiddle with the buttons. He was also fascinated with the seat and would spend several minutes lifting it up and down and placing objects inside. But he hardly rode on it. When his friends came over, they immediately sat on the truck, scuttling their feet and “driving.” “Why isn’t my toddler riding his truck?” my ever so worrisome self asked. “Isn’t this a milestone that he should be able to do?”

I realize now that no, it’s not a milestone, nor is it an indication of anything other than a little boy’s insatiable curiosity about how things work. And sometimes that curiosity requires him to play differently. There are plenty of ways that we encourage him to play “the right way.” For instance, we model the proper way to read books, which is left to right, up to down, because eventually he’ll need this skill when learning how to read. But we don’t step in if he suddenly wants to flip pages back and forth, all in the wrong order, or even use the books as a boogie board (yes, he has done this on our carpet).

I want my toddler to explore a toy and decipher its function himself. If we define how each toy was meant to be played with, he may assume that there’s only one answer to every question, one authority over every possibility. Instead, we don’t want to limit his curiosity. There will always be something to learn—whether it’s mastering object permanence by hiding items inside a truck, or discovering momentum in the pull of a swing.

Do your kids play in unconventional ways?

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17 thoughts on “The “right way” toddlers should play

  1. Yes, Emma does the swing thing too. Her variation is to place her cuddly toy on the swing. She also goes head down on slides(oh, how it makes me cringe!) and loves her pull-along travelling bag. She discovered it last night in the storage cupboard and filled it with bits and pieces and carried it along till it was time to go to bed.So much fun!

  2. Very good topic, however, I do find we have to stop putting “unconventional or the right way” in a sentence when it comes to children. Our society is so focused on this wording that it has become negative (and I don’t mean by anyway that you are being negative), that anything out of what we think is the norm, is actually unconventional. Some of the greatest minds in history did not do things in the confines of societal norms. I consider everything my son does as interesting, he has his own personality and notices things that I don’t, which is really beautiful to watch, I don’t compare him to any other child, and whatever he is interested in I try to nurture it, I have stopped reading anything about milestones – as every child has their own.

  3. I’ve always let Baguette play with things on her own terms. I may “show” her how to do something, but if she wants to play a different way, I step back and let her.

    Example: books. She went through a stage where she did not want us to read to her. She would grab the books from our hands, turn away, and flip through the pages herself, in whatever order she chose at the moment.

    I figured it was more important for her to have fun with books than for me to read to her, and that the phase wouldn’t last forever. Sure enough, now she loves for us to read to her.

  4. Man, sometimes I just wanna punch librarians like that in the face! I mean, if you don’t like kids playing with the books, you are in the wrong profession. Grrr!! Luckily most of our librarians in Burbank are very cool (except for this one at the Central branch who could give the white witch from Narnia a run for her money!) and they seem to genuinely enjoy kids. So, that’s good. But in regards to right and wrong ways to play, all I can add is that Greta has a pretty vast vocabulary these days, but, one word she doesn’t ever hear is “wrong”. Like yourself, my wife and I feel that when it comes to playing, there really is no wrong way to play!

    • Burbank, California? I haven’t been to those libraries, but do remember going to the Glendale ones when I was a little kid and those were pretty awesome.

      And yes, I’ve since learned that there is no wrong way to play; every maneuver is a chance to learn something new!

  5. My boys dribble basketballs with their feet, swing golf balls with a bat, use hockey sticks to bat baseballs. Why not? So much fun!
    Great post!

  6. I really agree with this. My kids like to use their toys for different uses, it always baffles me when they’ll use one toy for something (a bag for a purse for instance) and then turn around and use the toy that is meant for that use for something different (using their REAL purse as a bed for a stuffed toy). Kids are amazing in the way that they learn.
    When you said “boogie board” I immediately thought you meant that your toddler was wiping his boogers on his book! I guess my kids are pretty gross, hahaha!

  7. Fantastic post! You are spot on with your comments. You always have a way with words. We bought Oster a table and chair set from IKEA hoping he would enjoy it for coloring and using it to drive his cars on. He did. For the first day he had it.

    After that, both the chairs AND the table are now used as walkers. At first, he pushed the chairs and crawled, then he began to stand up and push them. When I was doing the dishes one day, he pushed the table into the kitchen. We call him the piano mover. He LOVES pushing his furniture.

    In his Wednesday class, he always wants to stand and hold the back of the chair while his classmates sit on theirs. I don’t know. I guess it’s just his thing 🙂

  8. My daughter is getting really imaginative with her toys these days. This morning her puzzle pieces were breakfast. She set up pillows for high chairs and a table and handed out puzzle pieces and instructed me whether it was food or drink.

    I love it when she uses her imagination. But there certainly have been times when it’s made me nervous that she’s not doing something “the way it’s intended to be done.” Thanks for the reminder not to limit curiosity and possibilities.

  9. Pingback: silly kid, socks are for feet & more ragnar | youjustdidwhat.com

  10. My daughter finds the weirdest ways to play with toys, or anything else for that matter, and it always makes me laugh. Right now she is into putting socks on her hands. I wrote about it on today’s blog post and gave you a mention!!
    I love watching the imagination grow!!

  11. My son totally does that play with the underside of toys thing! We always laugh because we think we’ve bought him some amazing toy and all he wants to do is explore the bottom part of the toy. Kids are individuals for sure–the words “the right way” always grate on my nerves. I like hearing about your little one! Fantastic 🙂

  12. My son has only recently started playing “normally”. For most of his little life if you gave him a truck he would spin the wheels and only discovered you could push them at about 18 months! He hates swings. He loves the idea of them, just not putting it into practise! I love my son because he’s perfectly unique 🙂

    • Since we’re talking vehicles, my 2.5 year old just now started getting into pretending to drive little toy cars. Now he pretends that he’s driving his little Lego car with the little man over mountains and under tunnels.

      • It took watching other children do that for months until he figured out they did that 🙂 he’s very special in his own special way – just the way I like him 🙂

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