We Said Yes to Play for 29 Days—Here's What I Learned From the Experience

Last January, I chanced upon the wonderful Capture Play Instagram challenge from supermom Allie of No Time for Flash Cards. I've tried—and failed at—photo-a-day challenges before, but this one was different because it focused on one thing I love and believe in: playing with my kids.

We tried to complete all the prompts for February for our own #29daysofplay experience. Though towards the end we skipped a few days—not because we didn't play but because we were too busy playing to catch it on camera. The rules were simple: just say yes. Yes to walks, yes to books, yes to being loud, yes to being quiet, yes to imaginary bad guys, yes to unearthing long-forgotten toys from dusty shelves, and yes to making toys out of household objects I happened to have on hand.

I loved this challenge because it gave me an excuse to take photos of my kids, but also because it taught me a few things about playtime:

1) Playing is Learning.
I've heard and used this expression before but, after doing the challenge, it really became real for me. While playtime can be noisy, chaotic, messy, and a sensory overload, I'm thankful for the times this month when I was able to participate in playtime as an observer. This happened mostly with my six-month-old son, but remarkably also with my tornado of a three-year-old. I am grateful for the times when I was able to watch little fingers flexing, stretching, and curling in response to a stimulus, eyes turned upward in thought, pauses before decisions were made, or bodies pushed to their limits, one millimeter closer to achieving a gross-motor goal. It was almost as if their entire bodies were expressing a thought that was being processed—the nerd in me liked to imagine neurons firing, synapses connecting, brain architecture changing. When my daughter finishes a seemingly pointless task of creation or exploration (a rock being balanced on a toe, a tower built from mealtime table materials) and tells me, "I've worked so hard, Mommy," I don't doubt it.

2) Children are Masters of Play.
The point of the Instagram challenge was to have intentional play, but I found that "capture play" was more appropriate for us. With a lot of things on my plate that month, I didn't have a lot of free time to meticulously plan and schedule playtime opportunities for my kids. However, I found that, often, I really didn't have to. My prepared activities were not nearly as fun as the activities my daughter made up for herself. Sometimes, we'd start with one activity (or an invitation to play with a few materials I'd gathered) and she'd come up with another "more fun" activity, using the simple question: "what if we..." Child-led learning extends to child-led play. Rather than my trying to entertain them (tiring and frustrating at times), I learned to allow them to entertain themselves and to flow with their suggestions or initiative. Even Jacob, when left alone, allowed me to capture him playing with the simplest "toys": a sunbeam, a shadow, a leaf, my hands, his hands, and anything he could maneuver himself over, under, and around. The result: zero boredom, major creativity!

3) For Children, Playing is a Love Language
"Mommy, let's play!" While the month allowed me the privileged role of observer (as noted in , #1 and #2), most times I needed to be an active participant. Admittedly, there were times when I'd rather be reading or painting while they played (parallel playtime). "You don't need me to help you build a tower; you can build it yourself," I'd say. But my daughter asked—though, more often, demanded—that I get down on the floor and, often, literally get my hands dirty. In the mornings, she'd ask, sweetly, if I had enough energy yet (meaning, had I gotten enough sleep), then she'd say, "Come down on the floor, Mommy. I want to play—with you." "Not now," or "I'm busy," were not acceptable answers. Maybe my son is different, quiet little J, who can stare at a sunbeam and coo at a shadow. But E, Hurricane Ella, wanted to show me, give me, get my opinion, tell me stories, and have me take a turn.

And so I said yes. Not just because Shonda Rhimes said I should, but because it was such a small thing to ask with such big rewards. A walk, to the gate and back, no more than 10 minutes, and she'd be tanked up to run off on her own or play with her friends next door. Fifteen minutes of block building and the stories the project came with and I could go back to my work and she would feel like she'd accomplished so much—a castle to be proud of. Five minutes to read a story and she'd have another world to play around with in her mind, to explore on her own, and quiz me about when we were together again.

She discovered the secret to asking me, too. From a song from Sofia the First, just one simple phrase: "Me and my mom." She'd tag it on to her requests, the magic words to get me to drop everything, anything (sometimes even her baby brother, though not literally, of course) and say, "Okay, let's go."

After the first few times she said (or sang) the words, I realized why they held such power. Playtime wasn't about what we were doing, what toys we had, or even how much fun the activity promised to be; what mattered was that she was spending time with me. Some playtimes, we had a new toy to unwrap; others, all we had was a song to sing, or even better yet, to dance to. For the magical minutes when we were together, it was just the two of us again. What we were learning through play is that we were important to each other. Today, in this moment, of all the things I could do, I choose you.

My life is about to get busier. There will be more things to choose from and more things that need to be done. So I'm writing this to help myself remember that, more than the new things money can buy, more than the words I say, for my kids, playtime means I love you and they need that "I love you" time every day.

To see all the photos and anecdotes from our #29daysofplay, visit my Facebook page here.

Daily #captureplay IG photo challenge by @allienoflashcards (No Time for Flash Cards)
Posted by The Life Enthusiastic on Monday, February 1, 2016