How Jamie Learned to Whistle (or Why I Quit Being an Overly Involved Parent)

My son Jamie was five when we moved into a new house. The first morning we were there, before the cable was hooked up, before the boxes were unpacked, before anyone else was awake, he sat on the couch and taught himself to whistle. Never in a million years would I have suggested that he go off and teach himself to whistle. It took time, quiet, sleeping parents, and a lack of access to all his usual diversions. I think of that morning as a gift.

As good parents, our instinct is to provide love, conversation, knowledge, encouragement, books, toys, and lessons. Life is so rich and full of teachable moments—who can blame us for jumping in with both feet to share it? But what if we backed off some of the time? What do kids gain when given the freedom to go at it alone? 

Apparently plenty.

“So many well-intentioned parents worry that they’re not doing enough. But many of us are doing too much,” says Tovah Klein, PhD., author of How Toddlers Thrive. “In the name of wanting the best and the most for our kids, our over-involvement leaves them too little space to discover things on their own. You don’t have to be actively engaged with your kids all the time. Just being there is sometimes enough.”

So what do you need to know about stepping back to let your child blossom? Here’s what educators suggest:

  • Hang around to watch—but don’t interfere with the creative process.  
  • Keep plenty of colorful and appealing craft materials on hand.
  • Provide space and seating that’s age and size appropriate, with supplies that are accessible and safe.

Set up choice time at home

A prepared environment is what differentiates free play and choice time, so provide age-appropriate materials.

“Then think of their play as an exploration, where one thing leads to the next and you end up someplace unexpected and cool,” says Jennifer Bevill, a teaching artist and creativity consultant based in Whitefish, Montana.

Bevill suggests keeping large quantities of inexpensive, multi-use, and recyclable materials readily available, including scissors, glue, tape, ribbon, and yarn. And save everything: cardboard tubes, egg cartons, clay, paper, junk mail, finger and water-based paints, buttons, Styrofoam, magazines, shiny paper, Bubble Wrap, boxes of every size and shape, pinecones, and corks. “A larger quantity of materials supports creativity and risk taking,” Bevill says. Then your child can begin to create, say, a cardboard box “city,” by taping and gluing and painting. If at all possible, keep the project area active so your child can add to it over days or weeks.

Later, suggest to your child that she take it apart. “The deconstruction is another part of the project,” Bevill explains. “Kids learn that when you take things apart you can put them back together again in new way to invent or create something totally different. It’s at the heart of invention.” 

Model, and then step away

Leslie Bulion, a science enthusiast and author, models exploration in a low-key way.

“When I’m at the seashore with kids, I park myself at the edge of the water and just start digging. I’m checking out sand crabs, tiny fish, snails, shells, tumbled stones, sea glass— anything that appears on or in the sand near me. The kids take it from there—digging nearby, constructing and decorating castles, sculptures, sand towns, collecting shells, stones, seaweed, and examining tide pools. I’m right there, but they are deciding how their play will evolve.”

At home, check out YouTube videos of sandcastle constructions, or sort beach finds, letting your child come up with a way to sort by shape, size, color, or markings.

Pay attention—but not too much

As your child explores and creates, be available if needed—but don’t take over. When kids know you are there in body and mind, “they feel secure and can then engage deeply in their own creative explorations,” Klein says. Renée Dinnerstein, an early childhood educator whose book, Choice Time, is written for teachers but a great read for parents) agrees. “Stay close, and give some help only if your child is feeling really frustrated.” Also, don’t jump in too soon. “Let kids work things out. They really are capable of it. It took me a long time to learn that.”

A great benefit of choice time at home versus at school is the absence of time constraints.

“Teachers are forced to break up the day into 45-minute time slots, and children are often prevented from engaging in deep and meaningful explorations because of the constant intrusions,” says Dinnerstein. Parents don’t have that pressure. They can let children engage in an activity for long periods of time. “If a child is intensely creating skyscrapers with Legos, you might notice the intricacy of the work and suggest putting the buildings on top of a large piece of cardboard. Ask if it would be helpful to have crayons or markers to draw out the streets and signs on the cardboard,” she continues. “This could be returned to over days, as long as the child has an interest.”

Play at home should be easygoing. It’s not school, after all. What I learned that morning when Jamie taught himself to whistle was that the comfort of home—even a brand-new one—is where children have the most freedom to try and try and try again. Our job is to set the stage. Theirs is to play on it. 

Pam Abrams

Pam Abrams is a writer and mother of two who splits her time between the city and the country, and frequents the farmers’ markets in both locations.