I have to confess that I don’t play very well with others. I mean, I can play sports and board games with others just fine, and as a child I did quite a lot of imaginative play on my own, but I’ve never done very well with cooperative unstructured play. I was bad at it with other kids in my youth, and I’m bad at it with my own children now.
When they ask me to go shoot baskets with them, I’m happy to oblige. When they ask me to play collectible card games with them, I can do that. If they want to just sit and chat, that’s great. But I dread to hear them say, “Dad, can you play toys with me?”
Now, I know many of you are asking, “How hard can playing toys really be?” and I can see your point, but there’s something about the way my brain is wired that objects to the crazy, impossible, random logic of kids’ play. I love imaginative and even fantastical stories in books and film and video games, but I need them to maintain the kind of internal consistency that kids seem intent on destroying.
Can people fly in your play world? Great. But please don’t have one character just suddenly be able to fly in order to escape whatever imminent peril you happen to have devised for him. Is there magic in your play world? Wonderful. But please don’t have one character just magically teleport somewhere because you feel like it.
I want defined rules of the game. I want standard operating procedures. Make them as crazy as you want, but I want to know them all up front so that the story ends up at least part way coherent.
Most kids, however, don’t play like this. Characters who were just killed in a police shootout can be suddenly resurrected just by saying, “Heal, heal.” Walls of “steel” that kill one falling character all at once become walls of “foam” that save the next. An “ocean” conveniently “drys up” to let a car cross it. And so forth.
This is how kids play, and there’s nothing wrong with it. I fully admit that the problem is with me and my need for a coherent story, but it makes playing with me kids (especially the youngest one) far more difficult than it should be. I end up being little more than an action figure holder, just doing what they tell me to do, trying not to fixate too much on the craziness of the story.
Despite all this, I do play toys with my kids. I sit and hold my action figure and move it where I’m told. I contribute my bits of story when asked, even if I’m usually overruled.
I do it because they love it so much, because they seem to enjoy that kind of interaction with me and with the world. I do it because it encourages their imagination and gets them thinking creatively. I do it because it isn’t sitting in front of a screen. I do it because it builds positive relationship between us. I do it because it isn’t really about me.
So, if you’re at all like me (my condolences if you are), and you also play poorly with others, I encourage you to make some time for it anyway. Put on some favourite tunes, pour yourself a coffee, do whatever you have to do to make it bearable, and let yourself play. You don’t have to like it, but I think you and your kids will certainly benefit from it.