Planting Seeds in Pretend Play

I started writing today, and I was going off on so many tangents that I finally decided to cut myself off and break up my various stories into a few posts. They’re all loosely related to a theme, which is that parenting is like gardening. Both of them require delayed gratification and a healthy dose of faith. I wrote about this in an article that you can still find in Kalamazoo Parent (page 12 if you want to look). But meanwhile, here’s one little “Planting Seeds” story.

M stows people safely in the bus while Mama looks on.

For a few weeks while M was a toddler, she was obsessed with a pretend play game that I’ll call Everyone Gets on the Roof. This game absolutely required my presence and participation. She and I would sit on the carpet next to her Little People house, and she would put, say, a Little People girl on the roof of the house. I would exclaim about how very hazardous this was, M would laugh uproariously, and then she’d find another Little Person and put that person on the roof. This would continue for several minutes until the entire roof was covered with precariously-balanced plastic individuals. Then M would knock them all off the roof. I’d gasp and mourn. The game would begin again.

This was completely adorable. For at least 3 or 4 minutes. But the game loop would repeat for much longer than that. The pretend play sessions would repeat at least daily for weeks. It was pretty unbelievably boring.

Sometimes I’d lose focus and forget, for example, to mourn Little People Brother with the requisite fervor. I’d attempt to sneak some magazine reading in on the side. And when I was caught, you’d better believe that my toddler’s feelings were hurt. Wounded, she’d reprimand me and confiscate the reading material. But who could blame me? It was freakin’ tedious. It was one of many tedious tasks involved in the rearing of this child. Anyone who thinks toddlerhood does not come with tedium either has never raised a toddler or has forgotten and has replaced their hazy memories with sparkly ones all about How Awesome Parenting Is All The Time. Then they carry on about these Mythic Sparkly Memories so that the mothers who are currently mothering their toddlers will feel terrible about themselves and their children. I don’t think that they’re trying to make the rest of us feel bad. Well, really, I don’t know. Maybe some are. Whatever the motives, I fall into the Parenting a Toddler is Hard Camp, as do many others (HT Ask Moxie).

Anyway, lucky for me, I stumbled upon some article that gave me new insight. I have no idea where I found it, and I couldn’t locate it again. Really, I tried. It was probably something in the endless supply of parenting books and magazines that I’d skim in search of All the Answers to Everything. But basically, it explained that very young children just don’t have a lot of information stored in their brains. They need to know about a variety of people, places, things, and actions in order to come up with their own narratives. And toddler pretend play and narrative are crucial to social and literacy development. Suddenly, I could approach the Everyone Gets on the Roof game with a new-found sense of purpose. Instead of just listening to her stories, I started throwing in my own suggestions. We started reading more complicated storybooks and we’d make up swashbuckling girl power tales. We pulled in other toys and used them in unintended ways.

We upped the quality of our play and we both had more fun because our stories were better. I didn’t have to sneak looks at a magazine, because when M started coming up with her own narratives, I was rapt. It was like I was unlocking her brain and getting a peek at what she thought was scary or funny or amazing. And  one thing that’s endlessly fascinating to a mama is new insights into what makes her child tick.

Later, M led J through this process herself. Really, they prefer to do their pretend play on their own now, because they like to create stories with diabolically mean teachers, scandalously naughty students, suffering and abused orphans, and all sorts of plots of which  they are quite sure I’d disapprove. But eavesdropping on them spinning tales happily with each other is one of my favorite things ever. The stories are way better, too, when they don’t think I’m around.

I thought that this information might be helpful to some of you parents of toddlers. Your tedious work is important stuff.

A year later M's hard at work playing while her new playmate observes and learns.


  1. Emily

    Thank you. iPhone is never far from my toddler and me for my entertainment purposes. Once in a while I make myself put it away completely. I will try to put it away more often and appreciate the amazing imagination of my little one.

  2. Emily, I was thinking about iPhones when I wrote it, too. Funny that just 6 or 7 years ago it wasn’t so much of an issue. If I had toddlers now, I’m sure I’d be secretly playing Words with Friends or whatever. But the whole idea of it really helped me, so maybe it will help you, too. . . .

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