The mind of a child is something incredible to behold. I spent some quality one to one time with my almost 18 month old today. Watching the little wheels turn inside his brain was really something special. He is so like his brother was and yet so different. I don't know how much of it is sex (male versus female wiring), how much of it is genetics, and how much of it is just plain "all kids are like that." Take filling and dumping for example. We all know how fascinated one to two year olds are with filling and dumping anything--blocks in a wagon, pens in a box, balls in a bag, gravel in a dump truck, sand in a bucket. It's a normal developmental process children go through.
Both of my sons however, have taken filling and dumping to the next level. Today my 18 month old became fascinated with a box of flashcards. He asked me to help him open the flap and then he dumped them out on the floor. I thought he was going to look at the pictures. Instead, one at a time, he patiently placed them, same side up, back into the box--every single card. Then he asked me to close the flap of the box back and tuck it in. And then I had to open it again. We did this several times, for about 10 or 12 minutes. My older son was always fascinated by doing similar things. He had and still has a great love of the sandbox. But the sand had to go in a certain bucket using only a certain shovel and up to a certain imaginary line that only he could see. Then he would dump it out, scrape the sand over into a pile, and start again.
Who knew watching a child stack blocks could be so fascinating? My younger son has no particular rhyme or reason to it other than to stack up the blocks and knock them down as quickly as possible. He doesn't even mind if they fall before he's finished. He just laughs. My oldest was always very specific. The blocks had to be in perfect alignment and he would become highly frustrated if they fell before he could knock them over.
Watching grass grow has nothing on watching my boys play with tinker toys, Lego's, or Lincoln logs. Seriously, these activities go on a long long long time. Both of my boys are very into this, but again sharply distinct. The baby has excellent fine motor skills for a child his age. It's frightening to watch an 18 month old fit tinker toy sticks into the holes of the wheels appropriately. My oldest would never have done that. He has only been able to do these more labor intensive fine motor things in the last year. Of course, the baby puts a red stick into a blue circle over and over and over--the same ones, whereas my 4 1/2 year old actually makes things--rockets, guns, planes, swords, etc. The most interesting thing about watching this is how intently they are both working on their play. Serious thinking is going on including cause and effect, play elaboration, creation, sorting, stacking, categorizing, sizing, problem solving.
The next time your toddler's incessant need to do something over and over makes your eyes glaze over (believe me if it isn't your first child, this will happen a LOT faster and there will be no video footage of the events) take a moment later on over a glass of wine or a beer to marvel at the amazing brain power your child is attempting to harness. Think of the potential creativity, movement, problem solving, and consensus that is being developed. By giving our children the opportunity to have these types of playthings, a safe space in which to play, and the time we allow them to work uninterrupted sends a very important signal to our children. We are saying what you are doing is important. Your play is your work. Learning is a part of our life in this home.
I realize that my sons may be unique in their ability to play with each other and even alone by themselves for long periods of time (upwards of 20 to 30 minutes sometimes)--or maybe not? Regardless, I think uninterrupted play is a wonderful goal for parents and in particular mommies. We often get so caught up in "engaging our children" or giving them constant attention or feeling as if we aren't "playing" with them enough. It is really my husband who taught me this.
I am often seriously frustrated with my husband's ability to just sit on the couch and read the paper while the boys destroy the house around him. At first (and even still) I criticized him for "ignoring them" or "babysitting" instead of parenting, when in reality, he is giving them plenty of space and time to work it out on their own. Obviously we intervene when the kids get hurt, or fight, or hit their heads. And we don't let them go on too long because silence is not a good sign around here! I have learned particularly with my second child, leaving children to their play is important. It models self-sufficiency. "You are big enough to entertain yourself. There is nothing like quality snuggle time with mommy, but mommy does not have to constantly entertain you." This was a hard lesson for me to learn, but an important one for me and my children. Brain development is going on in the quiet spaces just as much as in the rowdy, interactive, song and dance spaces. Sit back and watch sometime, I bet you'll see it. Better yet, hide behind the door sometime and watch them through the crack. What you find will light up your world.