Monday, January 24, 2000

Play's the thing

My daughter doesn't know how to play.

It's a strange dilemma for a nine-year-old. She should be directing her Barbies in elaborate dramas or appropriating the power of her preferred Pokémons or building worlds out of Legos or lavishing attention on her American Girls. But though she's come to know that she should want these toys, she doesn't have a clue what to do with them.

Maybe it has to do with the fact that she had no toys at all for the first half of her life--there being no Toys 'R Us expeditions from Russian orphanages--and she just never learned the ropes. Maybe it has to do with her language delays; she lacks an understanding of so many ways of the world that it's hard for her to imitate them in play. Maybe it has to do with her personality; she's a kid who likes rules and to be told what to do, and free play is rather terrifying.

Or maybe it has to do with the fact that her Mama doesn't know how to play, either.

Oh, I used to know. I remember playing endlessly with Barbies, and I was never at a loss for toys. I also remember constantly demanding that the grown-ups in my household play with me. So when my daughter now seems so directionless, I should be able to get right down on the floor with her and show her how it's done. But somewhere along the line, I've lost my patience with playthings and my interest in imagination. I get down on the floor and I think of the other 10,000 things I could be doing, and any sustained ability to talk doll talk flies away. And I look at my girl, and she's similarly clueless, and we wind up tossing them back in the closet and putting on a video.

My son knows how to play just fine. He can amuse himself for hours.
Though he's happy enough to play alone, he's constantly asking me to join him--demanding, really, gripping my hand and dragging me to his room--but again, my ability to sustain an interest in lining up cars in traffic jams is about as short as a stalled driver's temper, and so I am not much of a player in his games either.

Ideally, the girl with no ideas and the boy with many should play together like two halves of a whole. But the big sister doesn't feel it's appropriate to be led in play by her younger sibling, and frankly, she's not all that interested in traffic jams either. She does have friends over, and they do try to show her how to play with Pokémon or party with Barbie, but as I watch surreptitiously from behind the door, I can see that look in my daughter's eyes: the one that says, "What exactly are we doing here, and why?" The trappings of play may be there, but the deep desire is not.

So on those long weekend days when she's already watched her daily tape allotment and no friends are available, what does she do? She does worksheets to strengthen her academic skills. Sounds barbaric, but she likes the concrete rules and predictable actions, and I like the fact that it's good for something, and involves me only in the checking of answers.

Maybe we can say we're playing school.

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