The Rules of Play

October 10, 2013 § 2 Comments

Tea Party RulesAs parents, we are continually hounded by parenting experts about the importance of getting down on the floor and playing with our children. I’m fairly easily wooed when it comes to playing Candy Land or doing a giant floor puzzle or even painting alongside my kids; but when it comes to imaginative play, a little part of me wants to scream, “Please don’t make me do it!!!!” Why, you ask? Or maybe you don’t need to ask, because you already know about ALL THE RULES that our children arbitrarily force upon us from start to finish during these games. And nowhere is this more evident than when my daughter wants to play tea party.

E: “Mommy, let’s have a tea party!”
Me: “OK, where should I sit?” (I’ve learned better than to presume.)
E: “Right here”
Me. “OK’ (Sitting down.)
E: “No, you don’t sit like that! You have to cross your leg.”
Me: (making adjustments) “OK, I’m ready for my tea now.”
E: “No! First we are having a snack.”
Me: “OK, what’s for snack?”
E: “You don’t ask the question! You wait and I bring you the snack.”
Me (minutes later after being served a wooden egg and a plastic cucumber) “Mmmmm, thank you, this is so tasty!”
E: “MOMMY! It’s not time to eat yet! You have to wait for your tea!”
Me (an eternity later, when pretend tea is finally served): “Mmmmm, this tea is toasty warm.”
E: “It’s COLD tea!”
Me: “This tea is nice and refreshing. I think I’ll put some sugar in it.”
E: “That’s honey!”
Me: “I’m putting in some honey.”
E: “NO! You don’t pour it in, you have to use a SPPPOOOOOON!”

Thank you, but I will stick with Candy Land.

Is it any surprise that, in a world where they normally feel helpless and bossed around by adults, children should want to exert their own influence in the safe realm of play? Of course not. And that is why every tea-party-loving child should own Ame Dyckman’s irresistibly charming new picture book, Tea Party Rules (Ages 3-6). A bear cub innocently stumbles upon a little girl’s backyard tea party, which features an alluring platter of chocolate-chip cookies. Little does Cub know the lengths to which he will have to go in order to partake in said cookies. “‘You’re grubby,’ the girl said. ‘Tea Party Rule: you must be clean.'” As it turns out, Tea Party Rules also decree that the Cub must be “neat” and “fancy.” And then, even after all the bathing and coiffing, even after he is dressed up in a puffy pink dress and finally allowed to sit at the table before the cookies, Cub is told he must “eat daintily.”

"Tea Party Rule: you must be fancy." And so the girl spritzes the Cub with perfume (his sideways turned-up nose absolutely slays me).

“Tea Party Rule: you must be fancy.” And so the girl spritzes the Cub with perfume (his sideways turned-up nose absolutely slays me).

We all have our breaking points, and Cub begins to devour the cookies with no regard for table manners. Many authors would end their book right here, a humorous reversal of roles. But Dyckman is a master at infusing her stories with gentleness and compassion (she last did this in her loving portrayal of a boy’s friendship with a robot in Boy and Bot). And so, Cub has a change of heart when he realizes he is about to polish off the very last cookie, while his bossy-but-now-very-sad hostess looks on longingly. “‘I really wanted cookies,’ she said. Cub knew how that felt. He gave the girl the last cookie. But the girl did not eat daintily. She said…’Now we’re playing…BEAR!'” Here, K.G. Campbell’s darling illustrations, which combine strokes of bold marker with soft shadings of colored pencil against a simple cream background, reveal an entirely new kind of tea party. One with growls and wrestling matches. One where crumbs fly and dresses fall by the wayside.

Sometimes No Rules feels pretty darn good.

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