On the Road: Learning to Play

Welcome to the September Carnival of Natural Parenting: Parenting Through Play

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama. This month our participants have shared how challenging discipline situations can be met with play. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.


Hello, lovely carnival participants. As it happens, today is the day on which I finally head home on the last leg of my grand journey, so I will be in a car driving for many many hours. In case you don’t hear from me for a couple of days (likely), Welcome!

I don’t have much to say about discipline, or how to use play instead of consequences or any of those things. All I can tell you is that I just spent seven weeks in a car with two of my children, and it was grand. We stayed up until dark, played by lakes in the moonlight, ate marshmallows by campfires, lived on peanut butter sandwiches for days at a time, broke all the rules, and had a brilliant summer. It was the most fun I’ve had since I started this parenting journey almost exactly 12 years ago.

I’m a very earnest sort. I spend a lot most of my time trapped in my head. Playing is work for me. By that, I don’t mean that I equate work and play. I mean that to play… to stop teaching, and educating, and considering and pondering… to play requires enormous effort, thus defeating the point. If you point me at a game with clearly defined rules, I might be able to get into it. But for years I have gotten down on the floor with my children, trying to figure out what this playing thing is about anyway… knowing, as I do, that play is the essential thing that allows learning. Free play. Nature of the prolonged childhood of the human animal. Developmental necessity thereof. (I assume that there will be plenty of posts about the benefits of play. Please do read them. I’m sure I will.) But I find myself down there, on the floor, and I notice how messy the room is, and I think, “I’ll just pick up a few of these things then.” And the kids tell me I’m doing it wrong, and I get upset because I can’t figure out the rules, and they won’t accept any of my offers, and they tell me, “No, you have to be the giraffe, and she’s coming to rescue the zebra from the lions.” And I say something, and they say, “No, that’s not the voice the giraffe would use.” And then the giraffe gets grumpy, and the mama wanders away, feeling like a complete fraud: Bad mother who can’t play with her own kids.

It was all different this summer. I think it started on the second night of the “real” (camping) trip, after we had left my parents’ house. We set up the tent, and it was dusk, and the kids asked to go swimming. First I said, “No, but we can play on the beach.” And then I said we could play in the water. And then I said we could go in, but I planned on just wading and watching them from the edge. And then, when we had put on our bathing suits, and the water was spectacularly warm, and the light was beautiful, and everybody else was having such a good time, I dove in. We got our hair wet even though we were about to go to bed. We splashed about and swam and dived until the mosquitoes chased us away. We laughed at the fireflies in the fairy grove between the beach and the car. And something changed in my heart, I think. I wasn’t just taking my children on this trip. I was going with them.

We declared our digs palatial (on account of the air mattresses).

We took time to smell the roses:

And look at frogs and snakes and sunsets:

We climbed trees:

And danced in the spray from giant waterfalls:

We checked out playgrounds in many, many provinces.

New Brunswick:



British Columbia:

We climbed things, and hiked places, and found many many many bugs. Did you know that the larvae of the caddis fly hide in sticks like hermit crabs do in shells? I didn’t either, until my son handed me one. (I didn’t believe him until he made me wait for it to come out and start swimming in the puddle in my hand.)

And somewhere along the line, among all the explorations and mysteries, I found this woman inside me:

Which is the best argument I can come up with.

(Thanks to my friend Dave, who took this picture in Cathedral Grove, MacMillan Provincial Park. Did I mention the trees?)


Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaVisit Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!

Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:

(This list will be live and updated by afternoon September 13 with all the carnival links.)

13 responses to “On the Road: Learning to Play”

  1. I’m not quite as play averse as you describe, but I still know what you mean. I can find it very hard to enter into play rather than do something “meaningful” (which usually means a chore or work, ha). I even wrote a post once about how (yawn) boring play with a child can be. But I’ve also come to realize how playful I can be, when I let go. Your story of doing the same is so inspiring. I love all your pictures, and I love the person you found through playing with your children.

    Also? I didn’t realize you could have air mattresses while camping. Maybe I’ll try camping after all…

  2. I LOVE this article! I think that a lot of the time, the pretend is lost for adults, but the actually being in the middle of what they are doing, the journey together, is where I do so much of my playing as well. And that helps us to get back to remembering what play is all about.

  3. This post made me tear up a little bit! I’m also up in my head a lot, but my favorite thing about kids is being able to be carried away in a powerful, joyful way. I loved your line about not just taking them on the trip but going with them.

  4. Those pictures are just beautiful! Camping is such a fun way to connect with kids I agree and sometimes us ernest types (I can totally relate) need to be reminded to let our hair down just to be present with our precious kids as they won’t be young forever! Thanks for the post it makes me wanto plan our next camping adventure!

  5. What a beautiful, reflective post! It almost makes me consider going hiking (which I always say I’ll never do). Maybe one day, “for the kids”…but I hope if I do, I end up learning as much as you.

  6. What an inspiring read – your honesty, your love, your transformation all so beautiful. I too get down on the floor to play and notice the dirt! It feels like this opening up into a playful world had a lot to do with your intimate connection with nature and getting back to the simple essence of life. I feel blessed to have share a part of this journey with you through your words and photos.

  7. Speaking of rules, my way of handling the Critter’s inscrutable rules (which typically involve my not touching anything! after he’s pleaded with me to play with him!) is to break them, and flagrantly. Build things completely wrong, shout “VROOM! VROOM!” while pushing his duck across the floor. He thinks it’s fantastic.

    Also? That tree? I wanna climb it. Please! Please! Please! Can I, please?

    • Now there’s something I’ve never tried. Flagrant rules violation, here I come!

      The tree in the picture is on the canadian side of niagara falls, if you ever feel like a long day trip to climb things.

  8. I felt rather playful on our long trip this summer too. I think there is something about letting go of everything “normal” and just enjoying the moment you’re in. Your cross-canada trip is very inspiring, and perhaps one year we’ll drive the whole way ourselves.