Play Skills and Siblings

Nico and Leo are working on some construction project here.  This sort of scene greets me every day when I come home for dinner.

Nico and Leo are working on some construction project here. This sort of scene greets me every day when I come home for dinner.

My wife and I walked our three boys over to a big fallen tree this morning to sit and grab a drink of water during a hike. “I’ll do the brakes,” my son Nico (5) said as he ran toward one end of the tree. “OK, I’ll be the engineer,” replied Leo (3-1/2), and he ran to the opposite end of the tree.

Nico and Leo waste no time. They play every chance they get. They’re superstar “players.” Really…

We always hear that all kids, left alone, will play. However, as they grow up beyond infancy, kids’ abilities to play can be greatly enhanced or stunted by their environment. It’s foolish to believe that any human behavior is primarily determined in by genes.

I used to think my eldest son Marco (8-1/2) was a very good player. However, I now realize that my middle and youngest sons, Nico and Leo, are the best players of our family.

The details of exactly what they do are fascinating to me (play researchers – please come visit!!!), but for the purposes of this article, the outcomes are what matter:

  • anytime, anywhere: Give Nico and Leo a spare moment, and they’ll be playing. It doesn’t matter what time it is or where they are. For instance, at our hotel room in Hawaii a month ago, they and Marco built a huge fort out of the cushions in our hotel rooms one day.
  • nonstop, never bored: A few weeks ago, they had a week off of school for spring break. My wife was worried that they would be bored all that week because we had nothing planned for them during the hours that they were normally in school. In fact, that week turned out to be a great one for Nico and Leo. Every day, when I returned home at dinner time, I found them buzzing and happy, with big new building projects all over the place.
  • total engagement: No adult really supervises them anymore. Of course, an adult is always within earshot of them, but they get totally engaged in their play every day, and only feel the need to interact with adults to get food and drink, or when they go to the bathroom.
  • high creativity and learning: Their building and crafts have been getting a lot more sophisticated lately. I see evidence of this progress every day in the artifacts they leave around our yard and house. Also, they carry their make-believe worlds and rules over in their play over consecutive days, making them increasingly complex.

Note that Nico’s and Leo’s play outcomes are as desirable for adults as they are for children. I hope that they’ll grow up to be adults who, in any place and at any time, are not bored, totally engaged, and highly creative learners. My wife and I will try to make that happen by continuing to support their play lives throughout their childhoods. At 5 and 3-1/2, they have a good start, but they still have a longggg way to go…

So, how did Nico and Leo become such great players? I’ve written a lot in this blog about the great play environment we’ve created for our boys at our house, the freedom we give them to play, the efforts we make to get neighborhood kids playing with them, and their almost total lack of screen time. I certainly think these are major factors in making Nico and Leo into great players.

However, in this article, I want to highlight another vital factor that has contributed to making them great players: I’ll call it “the sibling effect.” When Nico was born, he had a three year-old brother, Marco. As the oldest, and for his first three years an “only child,” Marco had no such benefit. Instead, all the most important people in his life in his first two or three years were adults.

The difference between being first and second born has had a big impact on the two boys’ play skills. Nico had a play role model from the beginning in Marco, while Marco had to figure out how to play in his first three years while being surrounded by adults.

Marco benefited greatly from Nico’s arrival. They have played very well together from the moment that Nico could walk, and Marco has learned invaluable social skills from his relationship with Nico. However, Nico has always been more independent than Marco. As the oldest child, Marco is the most demanding of his parents’ attention, and he also has the most selfish tendencies vis-a-vis his brothers.

Leo arrived a year and a half after Nico was born, and of course, he benefited from having two play role models. When Leo started walking, Nico had the option of “playing down” with Leo or “playing up” with Marco. At first, the latter was the most attractive to him, but now that Leo is much closer to being Nico’s peer, Leo has become Nico’s most attractive playmate.

My inescapable conclusion from this experience is that having siblings is absolutely vital for developing one’s play skills. I don’t mean to imply that “only children” are poor players, but children who have siblings close in age have a very powerful, built-in advantage. Also, because having siblings is so vital, those born with at least one sibling around – children born after the first child – have an advantage over the first child.

Of course, parents of siblings can wipe out a great deal of this sibling effect by enrolling their children in lots of activities. Such activities not only take children away from their siblings, but they reinforce a notion of age-graded play that makes playing with other-aged siblings seem less interesting.

In order to become highly skilled “players,” siblings need to spend lots of free time together in settings that accommodate free play.

What do you think? If you have multiple kids, have you seen this sibling effect play out? Is it important for you that your kids develop great play skills like Nico and Leo?

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