Ducks in the water bowl: Toddler play time tips for parents

I was watching the parent of a toddler who was washing his hands. And washing his hands. And washing his hands. She was rolling her eyes and coaxing, “Don’t you want to go inside school and play with something?”

Of course, the answer is that he WAS playing with something.

Another parent walked by and sympathetically commented, “I know. Of all the fun things to do at school, they want to spend all day at the sink!” “We haven’t been able to stay dry for 5 minutes with all the puddles lately. If there’s one in her path, she has to go through it,” added another. I reflected on the fact that personally, there is often a rubber duck floating in the dogs’ water bowl, and I’m pretty sure neither my husband nor I put it there.

So what is it with all the things like that that kids seem irresistibly drawn to, like playing with water, pushing the buttons on the keyboard or microwave, or jumping on the bed?

Isn’t it weird the things that all kids universally like to do?

When you think about it, it isn’t weird at all. It’s the way things are supposed to be.

Children are programmed from birth to develop their bodies and brains, and are instinctively driven to do the things that make this happen, so the children will grow to be strong and smart. Bodies and brains develop through experience, and kids are designed to seek the experiences they need to have.

Babies instinctively put things in their mouths to explore them, work to pull themselves up to a stand, want to crawl to touch objects. Nursery school children instinctively like to play with toys, to play at the park, to ‘do it myself’, all things that meet the needs of their developing brains and bodies.

Most of these needs we take for granted and don’t think much about.

Knowing that children like to build, we provide blocks. Knowing that they like to play ‘parent’, we provide them with dolls. Knowing that they like to cover ground, we provide scooters and tricycles. Knowing that they like to move back and forth, we rock them and provide them with swings.

But somehow, while we work with nature on some fronts, we fight nature on others.

Not recognizing that they need to make lots of different noises, we keep trying to get children to play quietly, reminding and reminding them until we’re all frustrated and annoyed.

Not recognizing that they need to empty out containers and watch things fall, we keep asking children not to make a mess with the Lego, not to dump the blocks off the shelf if they’re not going to ‘use them’ (they just did use them, to push them off the shelf and watch them fall!)

Not understanding that they need the sensory experience, we tell them not to touch mud, glue, mashed potatoes, and a number of other interesting textures.

Not understanding how children need to jump, we don’t supply them with jumping locations, and spend a lot of time and energy chasing them off our beds.

And of course, forgetting how important sensory play is, we expect children to wash their hands only long enough to get clean, and to go around the puddles, and avoid the dog’s water bowl.

The solution is easier than you think

Instead of fighting these universal ‘annoyances’ we would save ourselves a lot of stress if try to focus on recognizing children’s inborn needs from their activity cravings rather than repeatedly trying to stop them from gaining exactly the experiences they need.

We could recognize that pulling the string out of the carefully wound ball of string is probably an activity that builds brains, and we can find something that the child can pull on (a few 99 cent rolls of scotch tape?)

We can recognize that dumping the blocks or the Lego out is a cause and effect experience need, and find things (maybe even the Lego or the blocks, thinking about it) that it’s okay to dump and watch fall.

And we can recognize that every kid’s desire to touch water is meeting a sensory need to experience the texture and feel of water, and set them up with as many water activities that work for us as we can... like washing their hands in the sink at school for 20 minutes.