Todd Hioki HeadshotTodd Hioki is a progressive, play-based educator for young children, birth through age 5. He designs spaces and materials that enhance relational curricula, exploratory learning, self regulation and executive function skills in early childhood. Mr. Hioki has delivered trainings to ECE teachers and administrators, from rural South Africa to urban schools, and local ECE programs. 

As parents during the COVID-19 quarantine, you are probably very aware, if you weren’t already, how much energy it takes to parent a small child in a single day. In this lesson, I want to show how you can promote the values of autonomy, initiative, and industry in playing with your child while conserving and storing energy throughout the day. 

To be begin, I want to say this is not a quick fix. In fact, when you initially integrate some of these ideas into your routine you may need to use more energy! But, if well implemented, over time you will need to use less and less. 


Principals of conserving energy

I have spent the past twenty years in preschool classroom. It’s hard work but I am seldom exhausted at the end of the day. I enjoy working with children because I know how and when to conserve my energy and when to use it for the most effect. 

Energy is a precious resource. Once you have depleted it, all the skills and education you may have are no longer available. To start, here are some key ideas to inform your parenting process:


Put your energy first

I am assuming you are a mentally healthy parent that slightly tends toward self-sacrifice. I don’t want to encourage selfishness or narcissism here. What I am suggesting is when you are making decisions throughout the day, you develop a keen understanding of what your energy level is. It doesn’t mean that you decide to watch Netflix instead of taking your child to the park. It means that if you are low on energy you might have your child play in the backyard instead of driving to the beach, if driving to the beach will leave you depleted.  

It also means thinking ahead. If you know your child is going through a tough time dealing with limits and you plan to go a restaurant that evening, you make decisions around that event. You don’t exhaust yourself that day. You plan in advance to take your child to the car if they start to tantrum. 

It means negotiating with your partner or caregivers to protect your ability to sleep, rest, eat, and exercise. It includes preserving aspects of your life that make you happy, like going out with friends. 

I know life may be putting constraints on you that make some of these things seem impossible. I simply invite you to start looking at parenting as an act of conserving energy, because if you know how to store energy, you will be able to provide for your child. 


Understand development

The more you understand child development, the less energy you will waste feeling guilty or confused. It’s also important because your child is constantly growing, and so you must constantly grow with them. What worked for you a month ago may not work today because you child has matured. 

Be wary of parent articles and even parent books. Many of them are one-trick ponies. My recommendation is to spend as much time as you can around people who are good with children. Volunteer at your preschool or just spend time there observing. If you tell a preschool teacher you are there to learn, they will be flattered. Watch their face. Listen to how they use their voice. These are the types of skills that are difficult to convey in a parenting book. 

Look into taking child development classes at your local community college. These classes offer instruction and materials that are way better than 90% of the parenting books out there. Though these classes are geared toward professional teachers, many parents take these classes to get a deeper understanding about their child’s development. 


Organize your environment

When you go to a preschool, notice how there is a place for everything. The toys in a preschool classroom are only about 20% of all the toys they actually have. The rest are in storage. Also, the storage areas are organized for easy access. 

The actual shelves in the classroom only have one or two items on each shelf. This helps children from getting over-loaded with choices, helps them clean up after themselves, and keeps them from pulling too many toys out at once. 

By rotating toys in and out of use, you keep the environment engaging. As preschool teachers know, when children start to get a little crazy, it’s because we have not refreshed the environment. 

This is one of those things that takes energy up front but pays off a lot down the line. Yes, things get messed up and cluttered every few months, but it’s still worth maintaining. 

Of course, many families don’t have the luxury of putting toys in a separate area. In the past, we have arranged for families to share and rotate toys with each other. This is a great way to save money and keep down the clutter. 


Make agreements with your partner

For those of you who are parenting with a partner, you know it can sometimes be challenging. Often, two parents have different values. One might be more authoritarian and one more permissive. It’s encouraging to know that two parents don’t have to be in total alignment in terms of method. They just need to know how to co-ordinate their differences. 

This “coordination of differences” can come in many forms. A mother might get annoyed if the father wrestles with the children before bed because it riles them up (a common issue). But an agreement can be made that if the father wants to wrestle before bed, he also needs to put them to bed. Fathers tend to get a lot more mellow when they have to deal with the fallout of high energy play. 


Harness the energy of conflict

Assuming the disagreements between parents are moderate, you can often use the disagreements to actually teach your children. For example, if two teachers disagree about whether the children should be allowed to make a mud pit, they can act out the disagreement in front of the children productively.

For example, I may not want the children to play in the mud because I don’t want to have to supervise 10 children changing clothes and cleaning up afterward. Another teacher might think it’s exactly the kind of big fun play the children need on a beautiful day.

So the teacher comes up to me and says, “Todd, the children want to play in the mud.” The children say, “Yes, please, let’s play in the mud!” I say, “Oh, man, I don’t know.” The children look a little tense. their faces hopeful. The teacher says, “Why, Todd? Why don’t you want them to play in the mud? I say, “It will make a big mess!” Then over the next 5 minutes I negotiate with the teacher and the teacher negotiates with the children. I get as many concessions out of the children as I can: they have to change into their bathing suits, they have to lay out their change of clothes on the deck, they have to put their dirty towels in the laundry bag, they have to put their clothes away. Once they have agreed to all these terms I say, “OK! you have convinced me.”

This exercise seems merely playful and theatrical, but it has profound processes embedded in it. It teaches children that two adults can have disagreements and work them out productively. It teaches them how to resolve conflicts by looking beyond the individual positions (No mud play) and refocuses on the competing values (I don’t want to clean up.) 

When parents learn that they don’t have to protect their positions but can openly share their values, it can take a lot of pressure off— especially when you don’t have to hide these conversations from children and can allow them to participate. 


Know when to say no

Combining the ideas of the Parent State and Harnessing the Energy of Conflict, we need to come back to limit setting.

One of the byproducts of harnessing conflict is that children learn very quickly to negotiate.  You may find yourself bombarded with all sorts of reasons why a child needs to do something—watch 5 more minutes of TV, have more dessert, stay up later. Nine times out of 10, you may be able to provide a reason, but sometimes you won’t have one. Or your children are creating arguments faster than your sleep deprived brain can counter. How do you always provide reasons for your limits? 

You don’t.

You say, “I hear what you’re saying but I don’t feel like doing it that.” 

Notice something interesting here. You have provided a reason for not doing something, but not a rationale. The beauty of saying you don’t feel like doing that cuts through any arguments. We are of course assuming that many times you are willing to barter and negotiate, but as a parent, there are plenty of times when you just say no because you don’t want to. 

This is not a power move. It actually reaffirms respect and equity because you are not an object for your child to use. As a person, you have feelings and your feeling need to be considered by your child. 

I often use many variation of this:

  • I just don’t feel safe when you do that.
  • My ears hurt when you do that.
  • I’m hungry so we need to leave now.
  • I don’t want to play “cooking” with you but I’ll watch. 

This last example, “I don’t want to play ‘cooking’ with you but I’ll watch”  brings us to our next lesson…


Learning to watch play

This is perhaps one of the most important skills a parent can foster to both promote their child’s development and conserve energy. 

When I first started working as an assistant teacher at Pacific Oaks Children’s school about twenty years ago, I had the good fortune to work with Ruthanne Hammond in the Infant/Toddler Parent program. As a new teacher who liked children, I had a tendency to constantly involve myself in their play. I would pretend to cook with them, to drink the potions they made, and to almost become like a living toy for them. 

Now, I’m not saying there is anything wrong with playing with your child. I still love to play with children. But over the years I’ve learned to do it on my own terms. 

As I matured as a teacher, I started to withdraw more and more from activities that I discovered were not play. 


Playing vs. being used as a play object

When I refer to “play” I mean a genuine act of play, something that is intrinsically motivated. If a child wants me to join their tea party and I don’t really want to but I join anyway, then I am not playing. I am letting myself be used as a play object—a toy.

There is nothing wrong with letting yourself be used as a toy if that is what your intention is. I just don’t want parents to confuse being used as a play object with real genuine play because it’s a quick way to lose all your energy. One good way to tell if you are genuinely playing is if the act is vitalizing. 

As I matured as a teacher, I started to withdraw more and more from activities that I discovered were not play. I might let myself be used as a play object if I was working with a child that I needed to create a bond with, but that was intentional and short lived. 

The benefit of distinguishing between playing and being used as a play object was that when I did chose to play it was more real and satisfying. Since I felt confident to say no or quit anytime, I never felt I was sacrificing myself. So when I decided to join a “tea party,” I was actually playing. 

So if your child asks you if you want to drink their “potion”, practice saying, “No thanks, I don’t feel like playing right now.” 

Also, learn how to extract yourself from play. After 5 minutes you may realize you are no longer enjoying being the “monster.” You can turn toward your child and say, “Thanks, but I’m done now.” 

Yes, they may look at you will disappointment for bit. But when they see that you have no guilt or shame they will accept it and move on. 


What children really need

Often a child will want you to play with them. But what they want and what they need are two different things. Generally, what children need is a special witness to their play. They need someone they love, trust, and look up to observe and celebrate their actions. 

One of the single most important things you can do as a parent is love to watch your child play. 

Young children are learning important lessons about who they are, what the world is, and their role in the world. They are learning how to feel trust, to appropriately express their autonomy, to focus autonomy into initiative, and to hone their initiative into industry. 

When a child is in play alone or with another child, they are in one or more of these states. Their drive to play was built into them by evolution as way to develop all these important structures. Affective neuroscience recognizes play as a proper emotion, alongside fear, care, etc. 

When your child struggles to climb over a tough obstacle, they will often glance back in your direction to see what you feel about their accomplishment. This is called “social referencing” and is one of the key ways children learn. When they look at you and pose the un-verbalized questions, “So, what do you feel about this?” your reaction will either promote autonomy or shame. It will promote initiative or guilt. It will promote industry or inferiority. And just so we are clear, the right answer is not always the first of the pair. There are times when a child needs to feels appropriate shame, guilt, or inferiority. 


How to watch your child play

It means that you need to get comfortable sitting somewhere comfortable. That you relax your body. You might have a book in your hand or even your phone if you don’t get lost in it. 

The secret to watching play is to know that you don’t have to put a huge amount of focus on your child the whole time. That would be exhausting. What you are actually doing is going into a state of restoration. You are relaxing and letting your attention go mostly where it wants—what to make for dinner, the book you are reading, etc. But you also learn to always keep sensing your child. To regularly glance up and attune with what they are doing. Their activity might be so interesting that you simply spend the time deeply engaged. 

In order to conserver and replenish your energy, it’s important to know that you only have to attend to their play when they reference you. But this means you have to be sensing them so when they do look at you, you are ready to respond. If they constantly look up and see you buried in your phone, they are going to learn things you don’t want them to learn. 

The real art of this is learning how to reclaim your energy while you watch. Watching children play has become one of the most relaxing things for me to do. I tend to spend a lot of time with my eyes looking at them but thinking about other things. I tend to go into and out of awareness of what they are doing. And I don’t know how it happened, but I have developed an uncanny ability to be aware of what they are doing  at the right moments and still feel like I have possession of my attention. 

What I am suggesting goes against a lot of what mainstream culture thinks about teaching. In the West, it is about doing doing doing. But I am suggesting it’s also about receiving. It’s about opening up to let things in and reflecting back the doings of others. 


The beginning is the most important and “A stitch in time…”

Often, we don’t have the time to sit around and watch our children play all day, so we need to maximize the time we do. A general rule of thumb is to invest the most time and energy into the beginning of every transition. A general rule of thumb is that the first 5-15 minutes of a child’s play is the time when you want to be the most attentive. Once a child feels your attentiveness they often get really absorbed in their play and require less attention. 

Likewise, when you have several children, most of their conflicts will happen in the first 10-15 minutes. By being present at those times, you can help establish agreements and goodwill that will endure for a while. 

When you have to be in another room, it’s critical that you preemptively check-up on your child or children. If things are coming apart, you want to catch it while the issue is small. It takes a lot more energy to resolve a conflict before it becomes violent or before any damage is done. 

I call this checking up, “making walk-throughs”, as in, you need to walk-through the room your child is in to see how things are going. 

If you find that your children are getting into a lot of fights or you regularly return to your child doing things they shouldn’t, then you need to decrease the time between your walk-throughs. 

Again, you want to follow the rule the “the beginning is the most important time.” You want to do a lot of walk-throughs at the beginning of play and as you sense things going smoothly, you can spread them out more.


Avoid creating a praise junkie

You might have read articles on why you should avoid over praising your kids. These articles can sometimes mislead parents into thinking all praise is bad. I’d like to describe the dynamics of praise. 

In the example above, I was saying how important it is that we witness and celebrate our children’s acts of autonomy, initiative, and industry. But, I think each exploration a child goes through has a kind of “life-cycle.” That is to say, when a child first makes a discovery or accomplishes something, we will have a natural positive response to share with them. But as the child continues the activity, they might do so for two reasons. The first reason is because the act (for example: climbing up a tree) is intrinsically fun. In that case, there is no reason for us to continue feel we need to celebrate. The other reason they may continue the activity is because they simply want the praise. In this case, the parent can get into an energy depleting pattern of clapping every time child does something routine, like throwing away their used kleenex. Yes, the first time was genuinely great but the 10th time is not a big deal. 

To avoid creating a child that does thing simply for praise we can simply share our (mostly) honest feelings. That is to say, when the child repeats the behavior, I will naturally be less enthusiastic. I don’t want to be mean. I need to mediate my expression so I let them down gently. But, eventually, when they do something, I simply stare at them. If they want to keep doing it, it’s because they want to do it intrinsically. 

Saving energy

I hope this article has given you some food for thought and that some of these practices will make your job as a parent easier. When I talk to parents about focusing on energy conservation, they seem to resonate with the idea right away. Though it’s not something that seems apparent to most people, it’s something that becomes more obvious the more we base our choices around it. Ultimately, we want to create a harmonious culture within our schools and family. Energy invested in creating this culture should, over time, yield powerful returns. The more we learn to use the least amount of effort to get the most effect, the more enjoyable life becomes

Todd Hioki is an Early Childhood Educator and a Piper + Enza expert contributor.