i don’t understand my three-year-old’s play

OK, so I know play is important. Develops social skills, helps kids make sense of their world, bonds them with their parents, yada yada yada…

I have no problem with play. To an extent. Games? No problem. Jigsaws? I could do them all day. Books? Love them. Basically, I’m pretty good at things which have a definite outcome. As long as I know what we’re aiming for, and when we’ve reached it, then I’m happy.

And it’s not as if I have zero ability with open-ended tasks either. I’m a musician, for Pete’s sake. There is no ‘answer’, no ‘end point’ with the arts. And I can deal with this. I can paint, draw, cook, bake and make with my children – no obvious outcome, no sign of when we’re near or when we’ve reached it, but that’s OK. I can do this, and I even enjoy it.

The problem is that old chestnut of imaginative play. Friends with babies or bumps or not-quite-bumps, let me draw you in to the world of what it’s like to have a three-year-old. Today, to give an example, we started off – quite happily – with a good old role play of Mummies and Daddies. She is the Mummy, I am the Daddy – a role I’m happy to take, as it mainly involves sitting and watching Mummy do the work, occasionally suggesting improvements to the routine, but never actually having to implement them myself. Fine. And it’s an easy playtime as we have all the Gear. No sooner had we got rid of our baby bath, highchair and pram, than we were obtaining these things all over again in doll form. So out comes the dolly bath, the dolly highchair, the dolly prams, plus myriad outfits, dummies and weaning paraphernalia, and we begin.

But then – then it all turns kind of weird. With a very determined, matter-of-fact look on her face, Missy guides me through all manner of scenarios, locations and Things To Do. We have two upturned umbrellas in the lounge – I know not why – and these, amongst a random assortment of other items, become a kind of barricade, beyond which we’re meant to lie down and go to sleep. Or do our sticker books. (Hooray! A task with a definite outcome!) Then I’m supposed to go and kill the baddies – which, I have to say, I perform with great aplomb, using a wooden dagger and a gun crafted for me out of Duplo. (All that obsessive Twin Peaks watching recently has stood me in good stead for moments like this.)

And then there’s a lot of time where Missy struts around the lounge, as if looking for something very particular, occasionally gracing me with a sentence or two which doesn’t really make sense out of context. And there is no context. Is this how she feels, when I faff around doing household chores, occasionally muttering something out loud – fully comprehensible to me and my train of thought, but totally bonkers when spoken aloud as a single comment?

I’m pretty rubbish at this kind of play. I never know what to say or how to respond. But I’ve realised that the best course of action is simply to be there. To put the phone away, to sit amidst the chaos and listen and nod when Missy outlines her plans. And, of course, to observe what she’s doing, spotting which parts of her world she’s trying to make sense of as she brings them to life in role play. And it’s bloody fascinating.

If not just a little strange.


*For any confused souls who know me in real life, I’ve started using pseudonyms for my children’s names to protect their identities.

10 Replies to “i don’t understand my three-year-old’s play”

  1. Haha! Allow me to reassure you that your response of sitting/listening/nodding has a name (‘Following Play’) and is totally parenting-course sanctioned! 😉 It was a happy Tuesday morning for me, I can tell you, when I was told that the most research-backed thing to do in these situations is to simply sit beside them, murmur your approval at appropriate moments and – oh joy – drink coffee. X

  2. Yep been there myself, to be honest I love imaginative play but I never really try to make sense of it. For me it’s like time disappears and we don’t have to make sense any more. I think I just like the chaos sometimes, especially now we’re at the school-run stage and our whole week is achingly time-tabled with not a hint of variation until the holidays roll around again. For me it’s like a breath of fresh air but I know lots of parents who find it quite intimidating (I wrote a ‘help with play’ section over on my blog for parents having trouble but to be honest it doesn’t sound like you need it 😉 )

    1. Yes I think you have a point there with just enjoying in the moment and not worrying about whether it makes sense or not! Ooh, your blog post sounds interesting…I’m popping over now to have a look. Thanks for commenting.

  3. I sympathise, it’s not something that came easily to me either and I was always a lot happier with the jigsaw or the paintbox. But to be honest, I didn’t know I was born until my second son who has special needs came along. He suffers from severe motor planning difficulties which makes it very hard for him to plan even a simple course of actions even at the grand old age of 13. But it doesn’t take away his desire to act out or imagine scenarios and he loves stories and books. So our imaginative play goes along the lines “you be Goldilocks and I’ll be Mummy Bear and you be baby bear.” I decide to ignore the baby bear bit for the time being and begin to skip through the woods, but already we have changed scenario “and you be Jack and I’ll be the Giant, Mummy I want you to say Who’s been eating my porridge?” etc. I do my best to follow along but it is very hard work; luckily he doesn’t seem to notice or get frustrated by his lack of mental and physical organisation and actually seems to get something out of it all the same.

    1. Hi Lizzie, that’s such an encouraging story – thanks for sharing. It sheds a whole new light on the idea of imaginative play. Great that your son is so imaginative – I’m sure you’re right in that he gets loads out of it 🙂

  4. i think you are most excellent at imaginative play! You worked out she was imitating you. My children, when they were small would often ask, “mum who are you talking to?”. Myself, I’d confess.

  5. I really struggle with imaginative play. I’m so grateful when guests are forced to play with B – they don’t feel they can refuse 🙂 My poor mum though; she’s so tired of getting married every time she visits!

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