Anthropology of Three, Early Learning, News & Ideas

Calm and Gratitude in a Sea of Toys

2 Comments 15 November 2012

Watching as my son {Baby #1}, and now my daughter {Baby #2}, play in a magical land of make-believe has been one of the most fun and enlightening aspects of parenting. I gain insights into how he thinks, what she likes, what he hopes to do, how she connects ideas. Allowing this type of open-ended child’s play is so valuable in developing the creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills that form a foundation for life-long learning.

Open Ended Play

We recently attended a five-year-old’s birthday party. The celebration was nicely planned around a bounce house, play structure, giant pizza, and cake; yet exuberant little guests spread a sea of toys across the once meticulously organized playroom. {Something about other kids’ toys!}

As the party ended and parents apologized for the terrible mess, the birthday boy’s father calmly stated:

“The tide rolls in; the tide rolls out.”

This Zen philosophy made me wonder: Why do toys create anxiety for parents?

Toys are one of the greatest artifacts of children. If an anthropologist came to observe our home, should we be reluctant to leave evidence of our loved, active, happy children? Would we rather show evidence of our organization, discipline, and style?

Fixation on achievement, thirst for order, need for control, and obsession with perfection can be paralyzing. Yet, who set these arbitrary standards? We allow fear of judgment to diminish true joy for ourselves and our children. A joy that requires letting go.

“You must learn to be still in the midst of activity and to be vibrantly alive in repose.” —Indira Gandhi

For most parents, organizing, planning, and scheduling are practical tools that preserve our sanity as we go about our busy day. In fact, we create routines to help our children feel secure in knowing what to expect during their busy day.

We create systems of organization to help maintain a healthy sense of order for ourselves and foster a healthy sense of independence for our children. These family procedures are essential to operate smoothly, but they can be detrimental if we hold on too tight—when we focus so rigidly on getting things done that we fail to enjoy the process.

To live in the moment, look upon schedule and routine as a travel itinerary on a great journey. It will guide you to the right sites in a timely manner. But don’t forget to take side trips, get lost, and free yourself and your children to simply be.

Building Blocks

Do you know a parent who is practically cleaning up the Legos and blocks as soon as they are dumped out? Are you that parent? Do you ask your child, “Why are you making such a mess?” You might receive a blank stare in response. Or, an older child might state the obvious for you, “Because I want to play Legos.” She is not just making another mess to clean up. She is playing.

“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.” —Albert Einstein

Play is children’s work. It is their purpose for the day. They take it seriously. Interrupting them with the “Clean Up Song” is like waking them before they get to the best part of the dream.

Imagine walking into your child’s room to find him systematically emptying everything from his toy closet and carefully arranging it on his bed, with little sister following dutifully behind. They are building an exponentially growing pile of stuff. What would you do?

This happened yesterday, and I sat on the floor with Baby #3 and watched. When the carrying and loading was done, Baby #1 told Baby #2 to get in her driver’s seat by the pillows, so they could buckle up and get on the road. They were driving Mack trucks.

I could see my son “feel” the presence of the enormous truck around him as drove his bed of cargo. I could see my daughter understand the imaginary scenario and play along on a new adventure. The play was so elaborate that Baby #2 asked brother to “come back and wait” for her while she took a real-life pit stop for a diaper change.

Before bedtime, everything was back in its rightful place, and the children’s imaginations were quenched.

“We teach people how to remember, we never teach them how to grow.” —Oscar Wilde


Of course, there is an elusive boundary between purposeful play and haphazard mess-making. Auto shops down the whole hallway, construction sites across the living room, a couch packed for a road trip—these are artifacts of a good day’s play. Yes, particularly on busy and exhausting days, it would be easy to become overwhelmed by a sea of toys. Yet, I know they have learned the most on those days. And had the most fun. And have been fulfilled. The tide rolls in, the tide rolls out.

“I believe that education, therefore, is a process of living and not preparation for future living.” John Dewey

This Thanksgiving, which of your child’s artifacts will you appreciate with calm and gratitude? Leave a Comment, and Share if you liked this editorial!


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2 Comments so far

  1. Lori says:

    Loved this article!

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