The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

April 12, 2012

Sarah Coyne: Playtime worthy of knee injuries

By Sarah Coyne
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — I was a cackling witch, chasing little girls down the hallway, threatening to tickle them into submission so I could eat them for supper.

The little girls in question were both terrified and encouraging, darting in and away with breathless squeals. I leapt over backpacks and weaved between couches; my witchy self was quite athletic.

The girls fled to their bedroom and giggled out a whispered plan. I crept to the door, preparing to execute a sneaky ambush.

“Nyah-ah-ah-ah!” I pushed through the door with a wicked, screeching laugh. My victims screamed and plunged themselves under a blanket, but not before I could abscond with one of their lovies. I tucked the yellow duckling under my arm and raced away, searching for a place to hide.

The kitchen table loomed -- a fortress under which the duckling could be thrown into a bubbling cauldron -- and I prepared to dive onto a chair for cover. The little girls had developed a super-hero-princess spell that could turn me into a salamander at any moment.

But my pretended athleticism (the only sort I actually possess) failed me at the critical instant. My kneecap connected with the wooden frame and a crack of pain jolted along my leg.

Sure I’d broken a bone, I huddled into a ball and waited for the sweet release of death. Or perhaps the slithery feeling of metamorphosing into a salamander. Either way, my gig was up. The witch had lost.

My giggling, chasing children had won the battle against the witch’s evil schemes, but more than that, they had won the experience of playing with a parent.

I’m ashamed to say that wild, imaginative play is not my usual choice of family activity. I’m much more likely to be found propping up story books or helping the girls to measure ingredients for a baking project than I am to initiate a rough and tumble game.

My cracked kneecap -- the one I limped upon for two days afterward -- should provide all the evidence necessary to support this truth. Thankfully, my husband has plenty of playfulness to make up the difference.

Whoever it comes from, playing with our kids is foundational to teaching our kids. When we join in the games our children play, we come across endless chances to facilitate social lessons. Sharing, improvising, gaining resilience, perceiving moods, accepting ideas, practicing persistence, testing creativity -- playing provides innumerable opportunities for our kids to learn.

It might be an imaginary witch chase or a classic board game, but the experience is what matters most. Time spent interacting within the society of family leads kids to confidently interact in the society of the world. Social grace takes practice, and our kids deserve a safe place to hone their abilities.

It’s not enough to provide them with activities and toys to keep them busy. Those things hold their own value -- independent play fosters creativity, supplants boredom and uncovers passions -- but they shouldn’t be relied upon to the exclusion of parental play.

Playing with our kids can help us as parents, too. It opens channels of communication that become hidden in daily demands and obligations. Playing leads our brains to move in more creative ways in our external work and relationships.

And although it might come with a few shattered (or lightly bruised) kneecaps, playing with our kids helps us grow into stronger bonds of trust and unconditional love. Even a clumsy witch can appreciate such benefits well enough to sacrifice her dignity and comfort in the name of play.