Playing Alone

23rd Nov 2016

Something has happened in my household recently, a change

One that I’m not totally sure I like. I also suspect that it’s happening in many, many households with children, these days. It’s the strange, unfamiliar, almost unnerving sound of… silence.

You might think this sounds like utter bliss! Silence? What’s that? And can I have some please?! But it’s a strange silence, because it’s the sound of children playing… alone. There they are, connected to each other on all kinds of media – many of which I, as an Old Person Who Grew Up With String and Yoghurt Pot Telephones, don’t even understand – messaging and communicating, playing on computer games with groups of friends, but – often physically on their own.

What’s wrong with being alone?

There’s nothing wrong with alone-ness at all. I’ve written about the importance of it, and it’s benefits, in these columns – the need for silence and boredom and time to THINK.

I remember being on my own a lot when I was a child, because I lived a long way away from school, and most of my friends. So I spent a lot of time reading, thinking, cycling around and collecting bugs and beetles from the local stream. I WAS THAT COOL. And I liked it! I was perfectly happy in my own little dreamy world of bugs, beetles and coolness.

But this is different…

This is a new, pervasive and growing solitude, borne of our good old friend The Internet, whose omnipresence and superpower means children can now play together… without actually seeing each other. Great work there. They can do ‘playing together while being apart’ for huge amounts of time, because technology is everywhere, and never goes away. And we parents are busy, so for us, it’s kind of convenient that they can amuse themselves.

I reckon many of children’s friends spend more time after school and at weekends playing with each other online, than in real life!

Our kids can sit alone and watch TV for 6 hours a day. Play computer games in their beds. Watch films on their phones. Text their parents from upstairs if they want to know what time dinner will be ready. In fact, outside of the enforced social set-up of the school or nursery day, children barely need to talk to anyone, or see anyone in the flesh at all! And this, I think, is not so great at all.

Be social, without technology!

So what can we do, to shed a bit of human interaction back into children’s lives? Well, the first thing is to realize it’s happening, and then decide that you want to put some effort into changing it. That’s a good start! Then it’s time to think of activities we can do that don’t involve all of us being on social media (my biggest guilt!) or being in separate rooms. And which isn’t monumentally boring for either you or them.

Here are some ideas:

Go to the cinema. (Umm, with your child. Not on your own. Just to be clear on that!) This sounds like yet more avoidance, because you don’t have to talk to each other in there, but it’s not.

The difference between watching something in a cinema or at home is huge. For a start, to go to the cinema you’re all getting out of the house, and if you walk or cycle there, your kids are getting exercise as well. Win! Socially, it’s a completely different experience. Instead of watching alone in the living room, your kids will sit in a huge cinema full of other children, watch how they behave, talk with them, and learn a lot about how Life works.

Developmentally this is really important. It’s also much better for their concentration – instead of plonking them in front of the TV and then going off to empty the dishwasher (or, erm… go on Twitter, like me….) leaving them to be distracted by the cat, the ipad, their toys and so on, in a cinema it’s just….them and the screen. That’s it. So they can concentrate much better.

Go for a walk. Urrrrgghhh, a WALK. Mum, I HATE walks! Well, get your coat on honey, because we’re going out. The hardest part of any walk is getting kids out of the door. Once you’ve crossed this spectacularly difficult hurdle, the rest is actually pretty easy, and 9 times out of 10 you’ll be walking along, chatting, looking at things, talking about them and forgetting about the 200 emails you’ve not read, and they won’t be thinking about the next level of Minecraft.

Sit on the floor. This sounds ridiculous, but try it. As soon as you’re sitting together, on the floor, either with nothing particular to play with or just the two of you there on the carpet, staring at it, fiddling with your shoe laces, there’s some kind of weird human instinct that kicks in where you just….hang out. Talk, listen, interact, in a way that we just don’t when we’re in the kitchen, busy, sitting in front of the telly or computer, or surrounded by toys everywhere.
There’s a very simple, grounding closeness about…being on the floor.
Go on – try it!

Go out for a drink. Not the pub, if possible. But sometimes having a special Saturday morning coffee and juice time, just you and them, can be HEAVENLY. I have done it regularly with my kids since they were very young. Yes, of course we could have juice or milk or cake at home. And often we do. But being OUT of the house means we are away from all the distractions, and can just BE, them and me, and talk together. I love it.

Resist the temptation

It’s pretty depressing in a way that we almost have to be forced like this into sitting with our children and ‘play’ or share time WITH them. I’m hideously guilty of being completely distracted by my phone, my laptop, Twitter notifications, emails, Facebook updates, cups of tea, snacking on cereal, and other vitally important parts of being a modern woman.

Spending time with my children, undistracted, engaged, together, is something I do far too rarely now – and so do they. So it’s worth having a massive internal STOP NOW! alarm that goes off, and doing something about it.

This, by the way, can also be something that a child-minder does.

Or which might require some childcare of a sibling, in order to do something one-on-one with just one of your children. However you do it, it’s worth putting in the effort and making it HAPPEN. Just once a week would be a good start.

Now put this computer away and go and sit on that floor

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