As my children get older, the way that they play changes. When they’re tiny, it’s all about touch, feel, and lots of slobber. Then they start to see the toys as more than colorful hunks of plastic, over time. They start to attach identity to those things… the toys get personas, backstory, etc. It’s fun watching them associate a toy that they’ve had with a character for the first time, and even more fun watching them make up their own character to fit a toy.
My oldest son (3 1/2) has started moving into another stage of play recently, and it’s something that resonates pretty deeply with me. When I first saw him do this, I was immediately sent back 30 years (30? that’s crazy).
I’ve watched him get a group of toys (sometimes cars, sometimes dinosaurs) and set them all up for play, usually in a row, or line, or hidden deep within a couch cushion cave. And after he’s got everything in place, something happens. All of the sudden, there’s a “situation” with someone in trouble. usually, the rest of the group are all in it together, and they’re trying to fix this “thing”. I’ll hear him say things like “oh no! We’ve got to get him to the place!” “There’s a thing coming!! We’ve got to get out of here!”
I TOTALLY remember playing, and feeling like there was a life threatening situation brewing (in the lives of my toys) even if I didn’t know what that situation was. There was an urgency, a danger, a need that I was responsible for playing out, and ultimately leading my GI Joes to win/save/correct the situation.
But what’s really interesting, and unique about this point in my son’s life, is that he has absolutely no context for need. He has no dire situations to fill in to his story. and I didn’t either.
Now, I noticed this a couple of months ago.. and I thought it was cute, and remembered doing the exactly same thing. Then yesterday it hit me. Maybe it’s being a male, maybe it’s being human, but for most people, there’s an inherent longing to fix something. That fix could be a physical break, a dangerous situation, an injustice, and unfulfilled need, etc. But even from 3 years old, he’s trying to fix something, and he doesn’t even know what it is. It hit me, that I am responsible for giving him context here.
They’re looking for the problem to fill into their story. As parents, I think it’s our responsibility to guide that desire to fix.. if we don’t it will be directed by the world around us. We need to show them examples of problems that matter, and are fixable.
Now, I don’t mean that we need to convince them that their play should be about solving hunger, or stopping slavery. I just mean that we should impress on them that saving is more important than winning…. helping is more important than getting. Imagine the difference, if a child grows up to know that they should fight for those in need, instead of fight to be on top.
It’s up to us to shape the things that children value. It’s up to us to teach them to protect and cherish life, even if that’s by making Optimus Prime save Hello Kitty from an alligator pit.