Some Much-Needed Perspective on Play

Today’s post was going to be a fully-detailed account of this morning’s trip to the bookstore, where Hula Girl ate about half of her Grammy’s scone and met a friend. It was a really fun trip! I hope to include the details in another post soon.

However, after reflecting over the last few posts, I realized that there was something awry. It seems no matter what I do, how silly I get, how exciting the activity may seem, Hula Girl is just not interested in doing any kind of formal activities with me. The more I thought about it, the more it bugged me, until yesterday afternoon when she woke an hour early from her nap, and I broke down in a big ol’ pity party (complete with loud, ugly waterworks) because I just couldn’t face the thought of keeping her engaged for an extra hour before independent playtime.

I just couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong. All the activities I’ve been trying to do with her have been age-appropriate and geared toward learning! They’re similar to things she does on her own, so they should be at least mildly entertaining for her! But instead of having fun and playing, she’s been saying, “No, Mommy,” while I have been cajoling and fretting over the fact that she just doesn’t like playing with me!

So of course, I did the only thing a normal person in my situation would do- I texted Jonathan this message: “Another freaking short nap. 2 hours. So tired of this. Also want to shut off the monitor and go to hawaii alone for fifteen years. Sick of being called mommy.”

My next step was to message my mother-in-law, and complain about yet another short nap while also whining about Hula Girl’s propensity for putting art supplies (crayons, paints, chalk, etc.) in her mouth every.single.time we try to do a project, so that we never get through the project because I always just cut the project off as soon as she puts them in her mouth. And yes, I remind her ahead of time, and yes, I ask her if it’s okay to do it, and yes, she always answers, “No mou, Mommy,” (No mouth, Mommy), so I know she knows not to do it. We then decided that we’ll just have to put away all art supplies for a while. Then Momma C said something to the effect of, “Maybe it won’t even bother her because art isn’t really the way she needs to express herself right now anyway.” BAM, it hit me. Momma C was totally right on- Hula Girl isn’t doing these things to spite me- she’s acting her age, and I am way off on my expectations of her.

After that enlightening conversation, I posed the question to my Babywise Moms Google Group. My topic header: “What to do with your toddler when she doesn’t want to do anything?”

I explained the situation and how frustrated I was getting since I was spending all this time and energy planning out “fun” learning activities for Hula Girl all day long and she just wasn’t interested in doing anything with me. I explained that it made me feel like I wasn’t doing anything right, or that maybe something was wrong with Hula Girl and I just wasn’t seeing it. I really even started questioning whether or not she was developmentally on target and whether I should give our state’s early intervention program a call.

So many wise moms chimed in. And, wow, they astounded me with their responses. Here’s the gist:

  • Hula Girl is at an independent stage.
  • Hula Girl needs to learn how to play on her own anyway.
  • At this age she will learn more just by doing exploratory kinds of play.
  • There is nothing wrong with having her tag along with me as I do things around the house or outside.
  • She’ll get interested in more structured “learning activities” as she gets more interested in playing with others- namely me. It’s something she’ll grow into.
  • Lots of other moms felt the same frustration at this age but now that their kids are older, realize that they were working too hard and stressing over nothing.
  • Free play is all she really needs.
  • It would be fun to set up a few “stations” around the house where she can go to do exploratory play on her own, and where she can ask me to join when she wants me to.
  • Most importantly: she’s a smart cookie and will continue to learn and develop quickly even without me hovering and directing every experience she has. Just let her be!

I felt so relieved when I read all these messages and pieces of advice. I have, in fact, told myself these things numerous times, but there is still that little part in me that wants Hula Girl to be the very best she can be. And for me, that included a lot of direct instruction and academic learning. I did well with that. But she is at an age where it’s not necessary, and maybe it won’t even be her style as she grows! Who knows!?

So now I have a few new goals set for myself and for Hula Girl:

  1. Get chores done while Hula Girl is awake and with me. Let her join in if she wants (she loves loves loves to sweep) but also let her choose to just play if she wants (this morning she spent 15 minutes sitting in a laundry basket putting on different necklaces and taking them off again while I sorted and started some loads in the washer).
  2. Set up 2 activity centers each day where Hula Girl can go to do exploratory play on her own or with help. I found a great blog for some ideas on what to do: Play At Home Mom. I also got a few good ideas from my mom friends, Kristen and Wendy, such as hanging a few balloons from a light fixture and letting Hula Girl do with them what she will, or putting a basin of water on a towel in the kitchen along with some kitchen funnels and tools to scoop and explore the water.
  3. Spend more time letting Hula Girl know what adult life is really like. For example, not all outings have to be kid-centered. She can go with me to the bank, the grocery store, or the coffee shop. They might not be the most exciting places on earth, but it’s important to know that not all outings include the playground, other kids, or entertainment.
  4. Only focus on short bursts of structured activity throughout the day, like reading books during milk/meal times, or directly teaching letters and numbers as they’re appropriate to her exploratory play. Let the rest of the day be more relaxed and include a lot of music, spur-of-the-moment ideas, and laughter. Basically, just go with it.

Last night as we were going to sleep, I was talking with Jonathan and reminding him that about 6 months ago, Hula Girl wasn’t even saying any words except “Dada.” And about 6 months before that, she wasn’t even walking or feeding herself.  And about 6 months before that, she wasn’t even born. If she has accomplished so much in 18 short months, just imagine what she’ll have accomplished in 6 more. That’s a third of her entire life. It’s crazy to reminisce. And yes, Jonathan cried. 🙂

Lastly, I just wanted to take some space to say thank you again to Amy, Lyndsay, Martine, Kate, Wendy, Britney, Kristen, Arlee, and Chelsey for all your kind words and sound advice. Also, to Momma C for helping me figure out the Great Art Crisis of 2012 (among many other things).


  1. kate said,

    January 28, 2012 at 4:35 am

    what a gorgeous post!! I am really encouraged by your goals and wish someone had told me to just relax and enjoy this time more when my 1st was the same age instead of fretting and pushing her (or not, but feeling bad about it, haha!). Your girl is so blessed to have such a dedicated mama and you will look back on this post and smile when she is (in about 1.5yrs) begging you all day for more craft, more learning, more play with her! 🙂

    • January 30, 2012 at 2:33 pm

      Kate- I relied especially on your advice since I’ve seen your kiddos (kind of) and they’re evidence of your philosophy. Beautiful little people, they are. Thanks again!

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