Free Play- adventures in parenting

32 years ago I became a know-it-all mom.

I delivered annoying Ted Talks to anyone who would listen. I went on and on about how to

  • stick to a daily nap-time
  • pick out educational toys
  • maintain a safe and sanitary environment
  • serve nutritious meals three times a day.

Fast forward four kids later.  I couldn’t remember to wipe the drool off my face in the morning much less how to mold a child’s future.

My kids filled all the thinkable space around me

  • tearing through the house
  • making lots of noise
  • drawing blood with toy rakes and shovels
  • turning building blocks into wooden bombs
  • taking dolls prisoner

and scribbling treasure map after treasure map in hopes of finding buried gold. (I know, their approach to treasure mapping can mess with your head. I advise that you just keep reading and try not to draw any maps of your own.)

My husband and I did the after-school enhancement thing. We shuttled the kids to swimming lessons, ballet, gymnastic classes, skating, soccer and football  practice. We did as much as one car and a tight budget could accomplish. Just an ordinary family desperately trying to fit into civilized society.

Once we got home my kids ran out the back yard and grabbed

  • tree branches,
  • worn out clothes,
  • old buckets
  • pots and pans

so that they could get back to the business of play, of creating crazy and dangerous  worlds over and over again.

What part of “lets be normal like everyone else” did they not understand?

Although I secretly admired their creativity, I was terrified that our parenting was not enough.

So I asked someone for parenting advice.

I didn’t know her well but I admired how she related to her kids, kids much older than mine. I hoped at least for some tips on organization and discipline.

What she imparted was so much more.

Kids need free play, she said.


Don’t obsess too much on  programs after school she said. It’s more important that kids have time to play with

  • match box cars in the dirt.
  • Dolls on the porch.
  • Or read a book on the couch for a while.

Free play, she said, helped kids to relax, recharge and learn to problem solve.


After that,  I started to see the benefits of free play instead of the mess my kids made.  There was a depth to their pretending that allowed them to dream and create. This unstructured time gave them a safe space to process emotions and explore their abilities. Their confidence grew as they mastered the art of creating their own fun.

Free play benefited me too. It gave me a few moments to eat that bit of chocolate or just sit and breathe in a comfy chair. This simple act of facilitating free play  also helped me begin the process of letting go.

Calm down. I didn’t let my six year old rent his own apartment or my three year old take the public bus to the library.  I let go of the urge to “make things happen” all the time. My kids began to develop their separate selves in small ways while still connected to mom and dad.


Free play didn’t make me a parenting whiz. I had so much to learn. I still do.

The advice of free play did show me that wisdom shows up in simple ways and in manageable pieces. A glimpse of understanding when you least expect it. A talk with a friend. An article. A moment of silence that clears your head.

Even at the best of times, tons of parenting advice and information can come crashing down on your head. It’s ok, my friend,  to crawl out from underneath it all and carry on.

Wisdom knows where you live and will find you at the right time.





Eat. Pray. Love. -A not-so-great mom celebrates her first born son

32 years ago today I gave birth to my first child.

baby josh

My family threw me a party when I brought him home. Maybe it was

  • the 1.5 days of hard labour.
  • The emergency c-section.
  • The fact that I’d never really been interested in other people’s babies. Maybe it was because none of the doctors or nurses volunteered to come home with me to help with this hungry, crying, pooping creature.

All I remember is sitting on the couch and crying.

I really truly didn’t think I could parent, much less survive the night.

I know,  not-so-great mom.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved my son with a love I had never experienced before. It’s like my heart got up and walked clean out of my body and embraced my little son. At the same time, I felt like a little kid. I waited for someone to take the baby and tell me to go back outside and play with the other kids. I just didn’t together get it all right. And, as the months progressed, it showed.

I was a mom who

  • forgot all about the baby every time the phone rang. More than once I ran back in the middle of a conversation to finish changing a dirty diaper.
  • let a stranger hold her baby at the airport so she could run to the bathroom and then ran back in a panic hoping that stranger had not taken off with her son.
  • took her 5 month son and visiting brother on a bike ride in Stanley park in the winter while it was raining.

Most times my house, my car and my hair were a mess. I didn’t make amazing meals.  Woke up on Mondays after forgetting to wash school clothes on weekends. I messed up over and over.  If parents got report cards I certainly would have made sure I lost mine on the way home.

But parenting is not

  • a grade
  • a project
  • or even a contest

It’s about faith. It’s about courage.  It’s about facing every day with three simple truths.

Eat. Pray. Love.

First, my apology to Elizabeth Gilbert. I confess I stole the title of your first best seller.

But, your awesome title was the only way to explain how this not-so-great mother managed to survive. It’s the reason my kids still talk to me, dare to associate with me in public after all the not-so-great parenting things I have done.

EAT- yeah, I know you’re smirking at this one. I don’t look like I missed many meals. But that’s not what I’m talking about. “Eat” is all about stopping everything to make a connection with your child. Like mealtimes. It’s not a battleground, or a chance to catch up on the dishes. It’s a moment you have your child’s attention, when they have yours. I tried to make the most of those slow-down-in-the-middle-of-chaos times.  I would listen-really listen to my kids and respond to them. My dishes got dirty again no matter how many times I washed them. The floor got sticky no matter how many times I mopped. But, my children never stopped growing and changing no matter how busy my schedule became. They needed me to stop everything and just be present with them. Those moments built connections. Relationship. The greatest investment I ever made.

PRAY-  There are not enough books or podcasts to help us fully master parenting.  I went to God constantly with my worries and concerns and my fears.  From the time my firstborn was itty bitty, I prayed about everything. You may think I was not as swift as other parents and I needed God more than most. But, maybe it’s just that I knew how much love my children needed. And as much as I loved them desperately, God loved them even more. He created them, knew them inside and out. I trusted God with them, their hearts, their future. I still do. And, I know from experience that God always comes through. Even for parents like me.

LOVE- this is the most glorious part. Josh was the first offspring to capture my heart. To start me on a journey of picnics in the backyard, birthday parties with dump truck cakes, of treasure hunts and story time. Even at a young age, my son had confidence. Confidence in who he was and what he wanted out of life. It shook my compliant personality to the core. Not everyone understood my strong-willed son. But my son gave me courage to trust the parenting process  even when other people didn’t think I was doing it right. When my son grew up and went to college, it just about ripped my heart out. (I cried and cried. It’s kind of how I handle change. I know.  Not-so-great mom.) But, that’s ok. Even though I let go, my love followed my son all along.

Today my oldest child Joshua Roy Hixson turns a wise and adventurous 32.

Most importantly, he and his wife are on a parenting journey of their own. It’s exciting to watch, even from far away. It’s not half as scary because I now know how forgiving this how process can be. No one is perfect. Stuff happens. There is so much we cannot control.

Thanks Josh for teaching me how exciting parenting can be. How forgiving the process can be. How imperfect people can raise children to be uniquely what they were created to be.

josh and shep

Happy birthday to an awesome firstborn. A devoted husband. A great dad.

josh and laura and Shepherd

Eat. Pray. Love.