Even at a young age, toddlers’ days are filled with routines from dawn to dusk. If parents work, the children often end up in day-care or day-school where, again, their days are usually routine and scheduled. No wonder kids are glad to be reunited with their parents at the end of the day, when they can play and relax with them, even occasionally playing by themselves. This they may also do, by learning to shut out noise and others (even in group situations), focusing on their own games and play, their own self -expression, imaginative and creative play. Every child needs to left alone from time to time, even when visiting grandparents.
The grandparental temptation may be to do as much as possible with kids–call it ‘tarpaulin neurosis’–something shared with many parents, whereby kids are inundated with learning experiences before their time, so to speak. Parents and grandparents have to remember that kids need to play their own way and be left on their own to do this. Even the youngest kid will be ticked off at having their playtime or original activity interrupted. In such cases, it is best to wait until the child tires of that sequence before suggesting something else to do.
Both parents and grandparents also need patience to allow room for the child to speak or explore, instead of interrupting or cutting off a child’s talk. Language and its expression are fundamental at this stage. It is always best to let the child complete his or her sentences and thoughts. If there is something an adult doesn’t understand, it will then be necessary to empathize with the child’s immediate context to figure out what he or she is trying to say. it’s the adult who needs to ‘child down’ to the kid’s point of view to see and understand what is being communicated.
There are times to learn and they usually arise naturally when a child is curious about something. Often an adult can make a connection with something else or suggest another or larger perspective on the question or view. The point being that there are teaching moments as they are called in schools, but that these are better occurring freely and naturally rather than imposed by a well-meaning adult. “The readiness is all.”
Yes, it is best to let children play free, especially with their primary imaginations free before “shades of the prison-house close in'” as Wordsworth said in his great poem on childhood: “Ode: Intimations on Immortality”. Kids don’t need screens foisted on them at a young age or deserve rote teaching pushed on them too soon. Far better to wait until they ask adults to read the words accompanying book pictures, or saying words when kids ask to know what they are. This all takes a peculiar kind of benevolent patience and an intuitive understanding of why children should just left to “be”, rather than channeled or ‘helped’ too soon, too early.
Play is important in life. God knows adults need it to help them let go and to have pleasure or simple fun. Too many adults are just plain too serious and this is, unfortunately, something that can get, inadvertently, passed on, osmotically, to children. Far better that you joke with them at a level they can understand and allow them to explore possibilities on their own, and to develop a sense of humor and irony about things that are naturally and truly funny.
Playing with three-year-olds means playing at their level, imagining things at their level, intuiting what they would be interested in and curious about. It means being their friends, sharing time and fun. It means leaving the ordinary stressed-out, unnecessarily complex adult world behind and entering their worlds and for a time, remembering what it was like to be that age, being fully there for them on their terms, not yours. Playing with them means playing for them. Nothing less.