Time and Opportunity to Play

The amount of ‘playtime’ needed depends more on age than anything else. Small babies are easy to provide for as they sleep for long periods and most of their ‘playing’ will be associated with bathing and feeding when their mother is in any case setting aside time and space for these activities. As they grow they sleep less and spend more time watching and handling anything within reach. If they can be put in a safe place where they can see and are provided with a varied increased collection of safe toys and objects, plus some opportunity to kick on the floor (where they can see much more than in a cot or pram), and if someone talks and sings to them this is a good start. It sometimes happens that a baby seems most ready to play at inconvenient times. This can be very irritating and wearing but some compromise is worthwhile – individuals vary and even among adults some people are at their best early in the day while others find they can concentrate harder in the evening. Worse still, and only parents who have had one of these children know how much worse, is the baby who appears to need very little sleep. Because his resources are limited he needs a lot of adult attention and parents, mothers in particular, begin to feel they are never free of his demands. The medical profession offers various solutions from ‘Ignore him and don’t make it worth his while to stay awake’ right through to sleeping drugs for the baby or the parents or both. It may be some comfort to the mothers to know there are far more of these babies than anyone seems to realize. It is not a case of having failed to ‘train’ the baby properly: these babies are probably getting far more stimulation and information than the ‘good’ baby who sleeps a lot. They do tend to grow out of it, though it takes several years – but as they grow older and can do more they make less demand on their mother’s time. Nevertheless it is worth wondering if more stimulation, more exercise, or perhaps altering meal times might make a difference.

Toddlers usually sleep during part of the day but some of a mother’s time and energy will have to be spent in arranging adequate time for play and exercise. Older children who do not sleep will probably be at the stage where they follow her around and enjoy ‘helping’ with whatever she is doing. They then play with toys and other material at their level while she is doing some of the more static jobs around the house.

Whenever a group of mothers discuss this stage there is usually one among them who says very firmly that she always sets aside a good hour when she can be free to play with, read to and talk with her children. This always leads to one of those thoughtful silences in which one can almost see if not hear the various reactions – ‘Perhaps I am a bad mother because I don’t do that’; ‘She must be much better organized than I am’; ‘Her children must be less demanding than mine.’ Eventually someone will ask her how she manages to find time to do this and usually it transpires that this mother insists that for at least the morning her children should play alone or have a rest so that she can get on with the inevitable chores uninterrupted. Another silence will follow this until one of them says ‘Well my children always follow me round and they slow me up so much I don’t always have time to concentrate on just them alone for an hour every day – but I do think they are learning a lot and talking a lot while they are working with me.’ Immediately the positions are reversed and it is the turn of the well-organized mother to think hard. The answer is that there is no answer – it is a question of flexible compromise. Nevertheless some quiet period in the day for telling a story, two or three minutes spent on enjoying at least the start of an activity together, or sparing the time to set out pots of paint or mix ‘play dough’ should be possible.

There are of course some mothers who have to be reassured that enjoying time spent playing with children is not in some way shirking the other less pleasant household duties. There are also mothers who feel that time spent on following their own interests whether it be a creative or a rather passive activity is ‘unfair’. It is always possible that they will learn something about materials, techni-ques and tools that will be useful later on. A good yardstick is ‘what is this child getting out of it?’ It could be that the child who is dragged willy-nilly to the park by a resentful mother, with the implication that he is going to play and enjoy himself even if he and she hate every minute of it, might be better off at home – unless they equally hate every minute of being at home.

As children grow older they have more ideas of their own to pursue and they learn to play with other children. On the whole mothers are needed less as playmates than as providers of time, space, suitable play material, conversation and stories. There are still many times when a mother can make a tactful suggestion which will extend the play or become part of an imaginative game if invited to do so. One does occasionally come across a three- to four-year-old who still depends a great deal on his mother to play with him but this is usually an only child and so not really surprising. There are few mothers who have so little to do they can make the mistake of taking too leading a role in their children’s play.