"Play with this so I can take your picture!”
“L., come here and look at the shoes. Look! Look at the shoes. Hey, come back. Where are you going?”
In the Arthur's Kitchen/ Kidport area, I observed a girl who looked to be about two years old with her mother who was trying to direct her daughter's play while also texting on her phone. First, mom tried to interest her in some shoes that were lined up against the wall in the kitchen, but it was clear that she was more interested in the airplane that was across the play area. She ran toward the plane and explored the various areas while mom stood nearby, alternately taking pictures and typing on her phone. The next thing we saw, the little girl was running away down the hallway. Mom initially didn't notice because she was texting. Within a few seconds, she was off, chasing after her daughter.
What I noticed during this parent interaction was that the mom seemed to be either trying to control/ direct her daughter's play, or not paying attention at all. Both behaviors appeared to have an effect on her daughter. When the mom was trying to compose a photo op or direct her daughter, the child actively resisted. We know that young children “seem to prefer classroom activities of their own choosing, and their perception of autonomy versus control are often seen in their notions of play or work” (Ormond, 2009, p. 189). In some of what I witnessed, it seemed that the parent's attempt to direct play actually lessened the child's desire to play. When her mother shifted her attention away from her child, the girl ran away, presumably, because she knew her mother would give chase.
Could both mother and child have had a more calm and satisfying interaction if mom had taken the role of interested observer? Possibly. What I think I witnessed, was the power of situational interest. Situational interest is "evoked by something in the immediate environment. Things that are new, different, unexpected, or especially vivid often generate situational interest….” (Ormond, 2009, p. 193-194). There were many vivid and engaging play spaces in the vicinity of the kitchen. Interest is a form of motivation. This girl was interested in several things in the area and wanted to be free to explore the areas that captured her interest. She also seemed to be trying to communicate with her mother, both by ignoring her and trying to get her attention.
I was surprised by the number of parents who tried to micromanage their child's play at the museum. In the dozens of children and parents that I observed, this level of pressure seemed to do very little to drive their children toward playing with one toy or another. Children were motivated to explore what they themselves found most interesting. I wonder how I've been guilty of this as a parent over the years. Watching these families interact has really made me think of how manipulative we parents can be at times and how little we tend to listen to our children as they try to communicate with us!