22 May 2013

Evolution of Play

I have to admit, I came into parenthood with a fairly broad preconception of what it was like to watch kids grow up. As the oldest of seven, with pretty sizable gaps between some of the kids, I felt justified in believing that I already had a good handle on how this worked. Older siblings were the key to parental sanity: I was just going to be exhausted and unhappy for the next year or two because I didn't have another kid to help me entertain Little Bear. In the weeks and months that have passed since he was born, well-meaning people have tried to sympathize with the new mom, reassuring me that they too were shocked at how hard it was to be a parent... but that's never been a problem for me, since I expected it to be miserable. Yes, I griped about the pain, the exhaustion, the frustrations... but they definitely weren't surprises. The surprises, for me, were some of the joys: for example, play.

Most people gush about how babies are wonderful and beautiful and perfect and "bundles of joy" and all that, and the cynic in me always said, "yeah, because you get to hand him back to his mom once you've made him cry." Babies were cute, and rocking my baby sisters to sleep was great, and it was fun when they started playing with toys and becoming mobile, but you couldn't fool me--I knew that there was a lot more work involved than play. But what I didn't see before becoming a parent was that all of that work, the physical and emotional investment that we poured into caring for him, created a which affects the way we experience his growth, making it radically different than my experience of my siblings' development.

Today Little Bear had a grand total of a half hour of nap before 3 pm, and somewhere around 1 he was speeding around the apartment on his hands and knees, scattering everything everywhere. I was a few steps behind, picking one thing up as he dumped the next on the floor. Then he stopped, sat up, picked up a dump truck, and began "driving" it back and forth on the floor, saying "Vrrrr." And at that particular moment, even with the stack of magazines and the blocks and the board books that I had just picked up five minutes ago spread out all over the floor again, it was the cutest thing ever. If I had been trying to clean up after a little kid who wasn't my own, would I even have noticed that moment? I don't think so... he got bored and went right back to tearing the house apart again, and I doubt it would have registered as a New Thing and Something He's Never Done Before and So Cute.

I grew up watching and playing with babies and little kids, but Little Bear has made me aware for the first time of the cognitive side of play developing, and it's fascinating. Because I am with him all day, every day, and especially since I don't have anyone else around most of the time to take over the playing with him, I've noticed the little changes as Little Bear has become more actively and intellectually engaged in his play. Today was the first time I saw him associate a sound that he could make with a toy. A few days ago, he realized that it was funny to try to pull his colored stacking discs off their stand faster than his daddy could put them on; yesterday, he learned that he could fling several off at once. Playtime is so much more fun for all of us as he understands more about what is happening, and learns to play with others, interacting instead of just reacting. And watching that happen, noticing little steps forward in his comprehension, is so much more exciting--brings so much more joy--than I would ever have expected.

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