Child-led play is one of those concepts I have always unthinkingly declared myself a proponent of. It makes inherent sense to me that instead of controlling my children's play, I want to step back and allow them to dictate. I want them to take the lead, and I want to structure our time together in such a way that their interests are followed and their passions ignited.
It's just that I wish their passions were sometimes a bit less gross and a bit more educational. And a bit less messy. And a bit prettier and more Instagram-worthy.
And made more sense, to me as a grown adult.
So actually having always proudly trumpeted that I'm all about child-led play (and pretty much child-led anything), it turns out I did have a few barriers to it in my head after all.
I'm a huge, huge fan of online resources like Tinkerlab, The Artful Parent, Imagination Tree, Science Sparks (read my Telegraph piece on the amazing Emma Vanstone here) and other sites and books that encourage creative and experimental play. I absolutely love the project-based, process-orientated approach. It's something I try hard to replicate at home but I've always felt I'm not getting it quite right, somehow.
Our efforts never really look like they do in the pictures and seem to have little, if any, logical progression. Also our activities always involve both children stripping naked at some point and applying whatever materials we are working with to their bodies and running around yelling.
Does this happen to the Imagination Tree too!?
And therein lies the problem. I have been looking at child-led play as something that has a formula. Something you can do 'right' or 'wrong', with a beginning, a middle and an end. Something that requires specific materials and ingredients, usually ingredients I don't have to hand.
A scientific experiment model of hypothesis (We've been enjoying fireworks and firework themes, I wonder if they will they like drawing on black paper with chalk? What about sticking jewels to it?), theory (yes I think they will, so I'll set it all up for them), method (ooh look at us all creative on our table! And look, they chose to add pipe cleaners themselves. THEY ARE SO CREATIVE! Must take a picture. And tag it #creativetable. And #creativekids. And #creativemamas. Oh Violet! Did you NEED to tip a cup of water all over your lovely picture?!), results (MESS. WATER. MESSY WATER) and conclusion (that was fun. But our fireworks pictures are a bit damper and less 'finished' looking than I would really like and now they're both naked drawing on their bodies with chalk, does this still count? AM I DOING THIS RIGHT?)
True child-led play doesn't always have a beginning, a middle and an end. True child-led play is about stepping back and trusting your child. Having faith that what they are doing is the exact, perfect thing for them to be doing right now. Resisting the urge to leap in and make it overly 'educational' but remaining on-hand with the odd gentle encouragement or suggestion (I wonder what would happen if…) without becoming 'teacher'.
And so it's also about having faith in yourself, your ability to partner with your child and join them as they lead you on a journey of discovery that probably looks nothing like it 'should' in the pictures and involves nudity and yelling, but nonetheless leaves you all with a deep sense of connection and a joyful energy at having shared something unique and special, just you two (or three, or four…!)
On Friday I combed through a whole load of on- and offline resources looking for good creative and playful invitations for Cherry and Violet. I made a huge list, and an equally huge list of things we would 'need'. They are both crazy about Frozen and I fell in love with these Anna and Elsa peg dolls and Frozen-themed play-doh from Imagination Tree, so they were top of my 'to do' list.
Then on Saturday morning over breakfast Cherry and Violet began playing with the salt-dough gingerbread ornaments we'd made and painted for the Christmas tree. Cherry used hers as a storytelling prompt and Violet and I joined in. Immediately I wished I'd assembled the materials to make the Anna and Elsa dolls because this would have been the perfect moment to bring them out….
And I had this sudden flash of insight.
THIS is child-led play.
Those spontaneous moments when they grab whatever they have to hand, and you follow. Those moments where you're NOT prepared with a lovely invitation, with all the ingredients and materials to hand. Child-led play is when they create the game, and you help them find the accessories.
So after a bit of storytelling I suggested we make play-doh for the gingerbread men to play in. We whipped up a batch (I use this great, super-easy no-cook recipe from Imagination Tree and surely EVERYBODY has flour, salt, oil and water in their cupboards? Cream of tartar is a bit less ubiquitous unless you're a baking aficionado, but you can substitute lemon juice instead) and made shapes and colours with the dough.
At this point I had a strong word with myself as I was really agitating to encourage Cherry to play with magnetic letters with her play-doh, pushing them into the dough to make words. She loves letters and really enjoys writing and spelling out simple words. But she wasn't showing any inclination to play with letters at that moment so I reminded myself there's more to learning than letters and left her to her squishing and squashing.
Then Violet wanted to tip water on hers and I resisted the urge to yell 'NO!' and start worrying about mess and her 'ruining' the newly-made play-doh. I set her up at her and Cherry's little table with a tray to catch excess water, some plastic containers and a cup and let her tip and pour away.
Then Cherry joined her and both girls tipped and poured, watching the play-doh dissolve and melt away, colouring the water. Violet then chose to add some salt to her water, and I put some natural yellow and blue food colouring and water into two old squeezy paint bottles for them to tinker with.
I added a few pipettes and test tubes, and Cherry mixed various shades of green while Violet continued to tip and pour.
Then they wanted to add oil, so we tipped a bit of oil into their concoction and watched bubbles and circles form. This also gave me a moment of agitation as I thought, how will I clean up this oil?! It's going to get EVERYWHERE!
At some point during whatever activity we embark upon my children will insist upon taking their clothes off. After the addition of oil both Cherry and Violet whipped their pyjamas off, ran around yelling for five minutes then came back and began rubbing the oil and water onto their bodies. We talked about how oil feels different to water. Then they continued to mix, pour and stir the mixtures they had created and decanted it into various old empty paint bottles and jam jars.
Then they both traipsed upstairs with their bottles of coloured water and oil mixture asking for a bath so I decided to look at rapeseed oil as a natural alternative to bath oil and let them splash about for a good 45 minutes.
By the time they were out of the bath, cleaned up and dressed, we had been playing for four hours.
In that time they had both been engaged, concentrating, active, busy, co-operative and resourceful. There hadn't been a cross word between any of us. Not one argument, nothing but polite requests 'can I have that after you? Please can you pass me…' and so on.
Not one squabble, stamped foot, pinch or punch.
NOT EVEN A REQUEST FOR FOOD.
Yes, it was messy. I put an old towel under the little table to catch run-off and that towel is now pretty stained. It took a little while to clear up and wash up all the implements, but I just chucked everything in a hot sink of water and washing-up liquid before Cherry and Violet had their bath, and all the oil and food colouring soaked right off.
We have been doing various messy and arty play activities for a long time now, but this was the first time I truly understood that there is no right or wrong to child-led play. There is no desired outcome, the process is the play and the play is the process. I could write a list as long as my arm about all the things Cherry and Violet learned and practiced on Saturday morning, from fine motor skills to problem solving to experimentation and discovering materials.
But actually I'm more interested in what I learned, which is:
Every child has the ability to lead and direct play, regardless of age or ability
TRUST your children. They don't need educational activities forced down their throats, they genuinely and actively want to learn, repeat, practice, perfect and master.
TRUST yourself. You don't need to control to feel involved or important. You will enjoy it far more if you partner with them instead of push them into a direction you consider acceptable.
You have far more than you think to hand in your kitchen. Save old jam jars and paint bottles, bits and pieces, cups and containers. Pick up cheap bits and pieces on Amazon if you want to broaden your collection. But you don't need an expensive science set to become scientists!
Mess really doesn't matter that much. It never takes as long to clear up as you think. Yes your children can, and should, help but realistically you'll be doing the lion's share so just DEAL WITH IT.
Use natural materials as far as possible because if your children are anything like mine at some point they will end up naked applying concoctions to their bodies and running around yelling and this is ALL PART OF THE FUN. I'm convinced this is how they let off the energy they generate learning and exploring.
You will all feel happy and glowing and lovely and connected and like you've achieved something wonderful afterwards, and you won't care in the slightest if you don't have a picture-perfect end product.
What could be better than that?