muddybootsA breastfeeding mom can’t write about breastfeeding all the time. Therefore, I am meandering off the path of breastfeeding today and taking part in PhDinParenting‘s Carnival of Play. If you haven’t been reading this series that has been taking place over the past couple weeks you’ve been missing out on some fantastic posts. I urge you to head over to her website and follow her links to the other participating sites.

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This piece on play is about the importance of imaginative play and being in nature, getting dirty and making memories. 

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I loved playing in the ditches near my Gramma’s house when I was a child. I loved sailing boats in puddles, tossing leaves and twigs in the streams nearby and watching them float away. I loved sloshing around in the muddy part of her lawn after it rained in the Springtime and creating chocolate-y puddles with my bare feet. Wherever there was a source of water, I was there muddying up the bottoms of my pant legs. So it is with this same delight I watch as my daughter and her daycare friends splash and make believe in the ditches and puddles near our house.

I run a licensed family child care in a semi-rural part of our town where there are ditches all up and down our street. There  is a small farm nearby, a school and a lake that serves as a wild bird sanctuary, so there are many good excuses to go for a walk, so often we do. It’s practically impossible to walk on a schedule though. When there are six children with me, ranging in ages from 10 months to 4 years, it takes ages to get anywhere. We used to have to walk a little boy to school 5 days a week, and what would have taken me 5 minutes took a gaggle of children at least half an hour. It’s not just the little legs that slow us down.  It’s the sheer number of games they play along the way.

Everytime we are out for a walk, there is a game for every ditch, every interesting tree, every large rock, every fence, every drainage grate, fire hydrant and hill we pass. As much as I admittedly have to practice my patience while watching their joyous lollygagging, I still find myself enjoying these walks, just as I enjoyed my own childhood walks with my family. With my Grandfather, who would treat me with a willow whistle that he would carve from a tender branch with his pen knife while we walked and talked, and with my dad who was famous for an impromptu game of hide and seek. So I try my hardest to give them as much time as possible, that they may make similar memories.

Their world is one in which ditches are rivers where imaginary boats ferry them across. I turn, and suddenly they are fighting an “800 legged octopus,” a weeping willow tree, with a sword that was previously a fishing rod. The make mud soup adding healthy handfuls of green shoots, leaves and twigs. They shout their hellos into a drainage grate while dropping pebbles and leaves to feed a snack to the friendly monster who lives there. They make mud cakes with sticks for candles, and serve them to the worms they find in the garden.

They splash, they march, they jump across the water, they practice their balance on the slippery slopes. They learn to help each other, they learn about their differences in abilities based on age and comfort level. They learn cooperation and empathy. All this learning in a ditch!  Little do they know their play is preparing their way (and brain!) for the adult world.

Pretend play is an important part of a child’s development. Playing make believe – improvising props, making up games and stories – whether self-directed or communally improvised, significantly contributes to a child’s cognitive development, especially in the area of executive functioning. In their play, as they practice making plans and carrying them out, negotiating, and keeping track of their role and the role of others, they are learning to regulate their behaviours, and this is part of exercising their executive functioning. We use our executive functioning when we focus our attention, plan, sequence and organize our thoughts and engage in complex tasks and conversation. Sounds like work at the office doesn’t it? This is the kind of work children are responsible for, but they just make it up as they go.

Television and video games, which so many children watch and play regardless of widespread parental disapproval of these activities, have become the substitute for old-fashioned pretend play.  Electronic play requires no socialization, and no active participation or imagination on the part of the viewer, and as such, in my opinion, may contribute to deficient executive functioning.

Aside from all this fun, some of you may be thinking, “But those are dirty ditches they are playing in!”  Well, I spoke to a foreman at our local Public Works department who explained that ditch water is rain water and runoff from driveways and gutter spouts. The time to be concerned is when a sewage line breaks, but in such a situation, there are tell-tale signs like shredded toilet paper. A faulty septic tank is a giveaway if the ditch is filled with slimy green algae, so you’ll want to warn your kids against that type of ditch. Orange water, however, is harmless, merely a sign of fallen leaves decomposing.

Sure, you won’t always know the exact composition of the water (it is a ditch, after all), but if you observe the water yourself before letting the kids go in and make them wash their hands thoroughly afterwards, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about.

So take your kids outside, let them get dirty, encourage their pretend play, get involved in their storylines, muck about with them, and help them expand their imaginations even further. 

I hope you enjoyed this post, and if you have any outdoorsy childhood memories to share I would love to read them. All comments are welcome. And if you haven’t already subscribed by RSS or email, please consider it. It would make my day!

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7 Responses to “Carnival of Play: Mucking About”

  1. #1 Heidi Says:

    April 18, 2009 at 9:00 am
  2. #2 Amber Says:

    April 18, 2009 at 9:54 am
  3. #3 Get outside! Carnival Posts (Part 5) | PhD in Parenting Says:

    April 18, 2009 at 8:02 pm

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