Sustaining Summer

We're moving from the bright greens of summer to the brilliant colors of fall. Our children are making the transition from summer to school, and from flexible schedules to structure. How, during this time of transition and in the school year beyond, can we maintain a sense of the fun that summer brings? Fun that binds our children to us in a way that nothing else can? When children and parents have fun together: playing, laughing and relaxing, the underlying structure of the relationship is strengthened. And it is that underlying strength that sustains both parents and children through the challenges that are both a part of parenting and of growing up.

According to the "Alliance for Childhood" (www.allianceforchildhood.net), play helps children develop socially and emotionally. Play encourages the development of fine and gross motor skills in young children, and gives them a sense of mastery over their world. Play also strengthens cognitive skills and lays the foundation for academic success. Further, childhood play is "one of the key factors leading to happiness in adulthood."

Many parents make the assumption that play is a solitary or peer activity, and that its benefits are confined to the toddler and early elementary years. Not so! In fact, play revitalizes and nurtures the spirit of any age person. According to Dr. Charles Schaeffer, a world-renowned therapist and expert on play, "We are never more fully alive, more completely ourselves, or more deeply engrossed in anything than when we are playing."

When play is shared with our toddlers, children and teens, it creates a deep and abiding connection that enriches the relationship. So how do we do this? How do we bring a little bit of summer into our relationship with our children throughout the year, no matter what their age?

Broaden your definition of play. One mother, who lives out of State, told me that her 17-year-old son?s favorite activity was to tinker with, wash and wax his car. For him this was play. So mom took to hanging out in the garage with her son. She would ask him questions about the "tune up" he was doing, and would take a cloth and gently polish the car when he did the waxing. "The light in his eyes, when he sees me touch his car and care for it, is indescribable. It?s the same light I used to see when he was a toddler, and I'd pick him up at preschool - like I was the most joyful thing in his day. I'm so grateful that we can play together again." Maybe your child?s interest is his bicycle, his skateboard, his "Thomas the Tank Engine" trains. You may not be "playing" when he adjusts the chain on his bicycle, replaces the wheel on his skateboard, or builds a new track for "Thomas" but standing, sitting and talking with him when he does so will look like playing in his eyes.

Tune in to your child's interests. You may not understand the attraction of Pokemon or Barbie Dolls. You may play a lousy game of chess or be completely "sports-illiterate." Taking an interest in the things that attract your child shows her that you care about her. When we feel that someone cares about the things we care about, it deepens our relationship with them. It may take a little extra patience on your part and the questions that you ask about her interests may be ones for which you don?t understand the answer. But as Steven Covey says, "Seek first to understand?" -- it's not the understanding that counts, it's the seeking that ultimately matters most.

Reduce activities like computer, TV and video that are passive instead of interactive. These are activities that are done alone and do virtually nothing to enhance relationships. You may be sitting with your child, but the interaction is between him and what's on the screen. However, if your child is a computer-game addict, then find ways to play with him: after all, two person games abound. If they are his primary form of "play", it?s worthwhile to at least start there, and try to expand his play options in the future.

Encourage your child to join you in your play. Maybe you like to cook, play card games, tennis, or racquetball. Maybe you enjoy taking a walk in the park, or going for a run. Inviting your child into your world helps balance the focus and gives your child perspective about the adult world. Children who grow up believing that adulthood is all work and no play often avoid growing up.

Expand your adult-play options. This is probably the most difficult for most of us. According to the Harris Poll in 2003, adults spend an average of 49 hours working and only 19 hours in leisure per week. Dr. Joseph Mercola says that for 40% of adults, that leisure time is sedentary. Other studies indicate that most adult leisure time is spent passively: watching television. Yet adults long for options that they identify as playful and active. Again according to the Harris Poll, when people were asked, "If you had the talent to be the best at any one thing, what would you most like to be famous for?" Interestingly, being a Humanitarian ranked first, with Musician/Singer/Performer coming in second, Athlete, third and Artist, fourth.

Studies show that play, with its accompanying laughter, is a stress reliever. People who play have stronger immune systems, better cardiovascular performance, an increased intellectual performance and are better able to retain information. When we take into account the fact that play enhances our relationship with our children and creates strong and permanent bonds that last throughout a lifetime, well? what's not to recommend it?

Take time to play this year. Play by yourself. Play with your children. You, and they, will be the better for it.