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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Channeling my inner toddler: the concept of 'play as work'

It's really, REALLY hot in summer where I live. Fortunately I have a magnificent dam, complete with wharf, specifically for swimming- much less work than a swimming pool! The only drawback is that the edges can be a bit muddy, and sometimes when I climb out I end up looking like I'm wearing Ugh boots made out of mud.

So the other day I grabbed a long rope from my partner's old sailing kit, tied it to a tree on one side, swam across with it and tied it to the other side, so I'd have something stable to use to haul myself out without sinking. My beloved didn't even ask me what I was doing; it's taken him a while, but he's now worked out that when I get That Look in my eye, I'm channeling my inner toddler and it's NOT a good idea to interrupt or offer to help. I Can Do It. Don't Bother Me. (Sound familiar, toddler parents?)

When I finished, I not only had a great way of getting out of the water without the mudpack pedicure- I also had a new toy. I had an underwater tightrope.

And so since then, I've been playing with my new toy. First I used it as a lane marker so I could swim laps, but that was a bit boring. So next I decided to use it to develop my arm strength, by seeing how fast I could pull myself across the dam using only my arms.  That was kind of cool.

But once I started to see it as an underwater tightrope, things got REALLY interesting. The rope sags in the middle, you see, what with the weight of the rope and the weight of the water it sucks up. That's science. (I only really noticed that because I was in Toddler Mode. You should try it sometime; you see the world differently, with lots of interesting details you'd otherwise overlook, when you have a Personal Project based on an Interest.)

So I thought I'd try walking the tightrope across to the other side of the dam. 

Now, THAT was FUN. But it was also amazingly enlightening.

I couldn't actually see the rope, because the dam is a typical, Aussie, murky mud-brown dam.  I had to guess where the rope was, and feel with my feet, and simultaneously keep my balance with my arms. And the rope moves; it's quite bouncy, so you can't go at it too fast. I fell off quite a few times, despite my best arm-flailing efforts.

And suddenly I found myself thinking, this is what it was like learning to walk.

It really helped me with the concept of 'play as work'.  To anyone on the edges, it looked like I was just horsing around on a hot day, but I'd actually got a bee in my bonnet about getting to the other end without falling and I was teaching myself the 'rules' of staying on that rope, involving posture, balance, control, foot position and speed.

We adults don't play enough, you know. We don't set ourselves enough recreational challenges, just to see if we CAN. If we played more, and mucked around at the edges of our ability more, we wouldn't have so much trouble understanding that children's play is their form of work, and that we shouldn't interfere when they're apparently 'just playing'- but in fact, busy working something out. And we shouldn't rescue them when they're taking a risk by learning a new physical skill.

I Can Do It. Don't Bother Me.

Are you a golfer, maybe? Trying to improve your swing? Think of that feeling. Don't Bother Me. I'm Working. That's what your child is feeling when they play, and you may not understand exactly what they're teaching themselves- but believe me, they WILL be teaching themselves something.  Think before you interrupt. Let them finish what they're doing. Think of the feeling when your phone rings mid-swing. DON'T BOTHER ME! I'M PLAYING!!

All the time I was in the dam, my dog was trying to interrupt me.  He was channeling his inner toddler, too. (I've decided that, for him, the age after toddlerhood will be senility- but I digress.) When he realised I was not going to find a stick for him and throw it in the dam for him to fetch, because I Was Busy, he decided to get one for himself. (Toddlers do that.)

I could hardly blame him for coming back with a stick the size of the Sydney Harbour Bridge; it was  a branch, actually.  Now, there was another example of 'play as work'.  I watched him wrestle that 'stick' from the fence near the bush, all the way around the dam till he got it to the end of the rope, where he knew I'd get out. He spiked himself on it a few times along the way, yelping loudly enough to make my partner come and ask what was wrong.

But he's a dog, not a child; nobody interrupted his game. When he finally got that branch where he wanted it, the look of achievement on his face gave me the giggles, even though I just about broke an ankle trying to get around the damn thing when I pulled myself out of the dam.

And the realisation that it'd taken him exactly two swims to figure out exactly where I'd set foot on land reminded me that toddler he may be, but stupid he ain't.

And that, my friends, is also a lesson for all of us.


  1. Ahh I love swimming in damns- reminds me of my childhood. So true to remember the importance and the joy of play for all ages

  2. I found it quite terrifying at first- I came to swimming very late for an Aussie, at age 12, after nearly drowning when I was 6. But now I love it. Nothing like overcoming your fears!!


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