I became a parent in the early 2000s, right at the peak of the Baby Einstein epidemic. The working theory at the time was that the combination of bright colors, moving geometric shapes, and classical music would spark brain development in babies and toddlers. As with many other “fad” marketable strategies, the evidence was biased and incomplete. However, as a new parent who was fixated on providing “only the best” for our child, I bought in hook, line, and sinker. We had the DVD library, the books, the puppets, the colorful “interactive” music blocks that, when rearranged, combined phrases of classical music in different ways.
Fast forward a couple of years. I now had 2 daughters, born 19 months apart. They were both born in Southern California, where we lived on a remote military base on the edge of the Mojave Desert. For nearly 9 months of the year, it was oppressively hot to be outside after 9AM. Playground equipment was often too hot to touch. There were a few scattered trees that provided some shade, but sunburn and dehydration were constant risks. Needless to say, we spent a lot of time indoors and Baby Einstein filled many hours of the day.
Don’t get me wrong, even though there were days as a stay-at-home Dad with 2 kids under the age of 3 that I wanted to put Baby Einstein on repeat play for hours on end so I could finally finish my master’s thesis, that didn’t happen. (Okay, maybe it did a handful of times…but I don’t think I’m alone in doing something like that, right?) We made sure that our kids had lots of “learning experiences” – trips to the aquarium, beach days, riding in backpacks while we hiked in the mountains, rides in the stroller as I jogged or biked, “craft” time with coloring books and finger paints, and structured playdates with other babies and toddlers in the neighborhood.
Eventually we moved back to New England, a much more forgiving climate for spending time outside much of the year. But now the kids were old enough to start really doing things that the prevailing thinking at the time said would aid their development and diversify their skills and interests – swim classes, dance and piano lessons, team sports, not to mention preschool.
You may have noticed that I haven’t once mentioned the word “play.”
Of course my kids played. They had plenty of toys, a swingset in the yard, scooters and bikes, a crafting table stocked with all sorts of materials. But what they also had, more often than not, was an adult hovering nearby to make sure they got along, weren’t making too much of a mess, used materials and toys appropriately, and that they were always getting something meaningful out of the play. I was there to make sure they took a “time out” on the bottom stair when they needed to think about how they treated one another or their friends. I was there to make sure they apologized the “right” way when they hurt someone else’s feelings. I was there to fix things, make suggestions, referee their games, and keep them on schedule. I was the prototypical helicopter parent, trying to do everything I thought was right to help my kids be the best they could be at everything except being a kid.
About 11 years ago, when my girls were 5 and 7 years old, I connected with Angela Hanscom through a rather random series of events. Prior to becoming a parent, I was involved in outdoor and nature education with various institutions. Angie hired me to supplement the content of the outdoor camps she had begun the previous summer. I instructed the kids on first aid, knot tying, plant identification, food chains, firebuilding. There were scheduled times for sensory experiences, animal husbandry, crafting, and walks through the woods. There was even a little bit of time for free play. As the program evolved into what is now TimberNook, with an emphasis on plenty of time and space for unstructured, outdoor, child-led play, so did my approach to parenting.
At TimberNook, we implement a step back but tune in approach to behavioral management. We allow the children to work out social problems, navigate appropriate risk taking, and foster a collaborative environment when kids recruit one another to overcome obstacles. Of course adults are present to provide safety and support, physically and emotionally, when necessary and to scaffold solutions to persistent social conflicts. But other than that, it is amazing to observe what children, even young children (ages 4 and 5), can accomplish and do on their own when given a safe and supportive environment. In this TimberNook environment, children are free to explore their surroundings and, more importantly, engage with other children as they practice social emotional skills in authentic and meaningful ways.
I began implementing a similar approach on the home front. When conflict went unresolved for too long, I stepped in only to validate the feelings I was observing and to ask my kids, “what do you think you can do to make things right?” It took some practice, for me to bite my tongue and keep my distance, and for them to communicate on a deeper level, but with a bit of practice, we were all successful. Despite trying so hard for years to do what I “thought” or “heard” was best parenting practice, I finally realized that what mattered was letting my kids have space and time to figure things out on their own.
My girls are now 17 and nearly 19 years old. They still have some growing to do, but I’m confident that they feel empowered to find solutions, to share their thoughts and feelings more readily, and to explore the world around them in ways that are meaningful to them. I’ll never know what would have happened if I hadn’t been able to step back a bit as a parent and to be more comfortable with allowing them to have time and space to play, but I do know that I was a happier and less anxious parent and that they were happier and less anxious kids.
If we can let go of our own parenting anxieties and are willing to allow our kids to fail and to pick themselves up again, to experience all emotions without judgement, and to explore creative solutions to all sorts of challenges, we are setting them up for future success in a world that demands creativity, collaboration, and communication skills.