I set the pile of helicopters I've collected from the ground between us and show my son how to throw them into the air.
"Spinner!" I call out explaining how the heavy part of the leaf pulls it to the ground while the light tail-end spins it in circles.
His eyes light up as he throws his own and watches it twirl to the ground. After throwing several more I throw one that simply thuds to the ground, no spin. "Dud," I say.
He looks at me surprised and I watch his eyes crinkle at the sides as his little body collapses into giggles. He has never heard this word before and it has struck him as so funny that he can barely speak.
Through giggles and squeaks, I am able to discern that he wants to throw his own and before it even leaves his hand he announces "DUD!"
...we threw "duds" and "spinners" for half an hour.
As a parent in pre-pandemic days, the majority of our days were scheduled out hour by hour with playdates, nap times, visits with grandparents, etc... With a toddler, I found myself constantly aware of the clock trying to time things out to fit into certain parts of our day. I got used to this 1.5 to 2-hour rhythm each activity carved out.
I should mention here that I function well in this sort of fast-paced, high-stimuli environment. This is always how I have performed best. My parents used to call it "extra energy", the doctor called it ADD. Whatever it is, indulging in high energy, fast-paced activities especially if it's physically demanding is what I use as my coping mechanism. I'm talking challenging overhung climbing routes, long early Alpine hikes, backcountry snowboarding. The stuff you really have to earn.
These activities are what ground me. They quiet my mind (and my body) from all the madness and bouncing. They give me something bigger to focus on than all the chores that add up around the house and all the getting from here to there. The trick, for me, has always been to keep moving. So, when I became a parent this was my default setting.
Now that we are being forced to slow down, stay close to home, and much to my dismay, clear our social calendars, I am left with a mind that understands but a body that doesn't. After 10 or 15 minutes without change, I find myself "needing" something from the kitchen, or trying to rearrange the playroom (a futile effort), or simply begging my son to please go on a bike ride or to the sandbox. Anything to break up the day.
Regardless of what we do, I find my internal clock can last no longer than 1.5 hours before I feel the need to start prodding my son on to the next thing. "Ok, we should start heading home now"..."5 more minutes and then let's go"...This usually leads to a meltdown or at the very least a standoff.
Then one day, I thought, "why?"
What is waiting for us on the other end? We have NOWHERE to be. Literally. And going home just means more empty hours to fill. Not just that, but my son has some pretty intense focus. He is not at all like me in this way. At 3 he can lose himself in a game for hours. Disrupting this kind of play seems counterintuitive and neither of us enjoys the transition.
I did a little research and it turns out that it takes roughly 45 minutes for children to get into "flow play" which is the state where they are doing their most important and productive learning. To disrupt this flow state before it has come to its own conclusion robs the child of imaginative play and stresses both the child and the parent. (The Tinkergarten website has lots of good information about this.)
So, I started doing something different. Now, I do nothing. I do not cajole or remind. I do not announce the time or set a timer. I simply run out the clock. I play and I sit and I try my damnedest to be present. I wait until I hear that sweet, tiny voice tell me "Mama, I'm done. I want to go home."
That day at the park with the spinners? We were there for 3 hours!
I'm not going to lie. It is NOT easy. This is definitely an exercise in patience for me. But since starting this new method I am not as stressed. Our days are more satisfying and my son seems more fulfilled. I also feel more connected to him. With a toddler in the "why" phase, I no longer feel like I have to rush my answers. I can follow him down that very thorough and meandering rabbit hole until he's content.