As I surveyed the playroom full of toys belonging to my two-year-old grandson, I realized something quite profound. His main interest these days is typical of a little boy—he has a mind-boggling array of cars and trucks in every conceivable size, shape, and colour. These coupled with his stuffed animals, racetracks, blocks, puzzles, train sets, etc. would make onlookers think they were in a toy store.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against toys in general and I know there are some great educational ones out there, but I take exception at the sheer volume many kids have nowadays. It’s overwhelming. Not only that but my little grandson already knows how to scroll through videos on his parents’ cellphones as well as find which kiddie shows he wants to watch on You Tube. All of this makes me wonder: whatever happened to play without all that stuff?

Granted, my own childhood goes back a long way, but some of the most treasured memories from those years involve days spent roaming with my siblings and playmates, rescuing injured bugs we’d come across, making daisy chains out of dandelions, or sailing sticks in the puddles and streams left by summer rainstorms. None of this involved the latest and greatest toys or gadgets or even parent participation for that matter. We needed nothing more than our own imaginations. Sadly, such freedom is not always possible these days, however, children need to learn to amuse themselves and this skill is being hampered by a modern society that for the most part entertains children.

I have to question whether this generation of children is missing out on all the benefits of being given the simple freedom to just play. My own mother told me and my siblings on numerous occasions throughout our childhood, “Go play. It’s not my job to amuse you every minute of the day.” As a result, my siblings and I—not to mention my generation—quickly learned how to amuse ourselves. We improvised with whatever materials we had at hand, we invented games or modified old favourites, we knew whose back yard had the best hills to roll down, and when the big sprinklers came on in the park across the street, as well as which trees in our neighbourhood made the best forts.

When I had my own children, I remember another remark my mother made upon looking at the calendar of activities posted on our fridge. “You do so much more with your children than we did.”

At the time, I took her comment to be a compliment; now I’m not so sure. I thought I was doing my children a favour by exposing them to a wide variety of scheduled activities and lessons to stimulate their young minds and broaden their horizons when, more often than not, I simply ended up dragging them around. There were times when I sat in my car after a particularly frazzled drop-off and asked myself “And I’m paying for this?”

Now I am happiest when I set everything aside and simply challenge my grandson’s imagination. I might pull out a big cardboard box (saved from the purchase of his car seat) and open it up, prompting him to squeal with delight as he crawls inside. He quickly shuts both ends so Nonna can’t see him. I must knock on the “doors” of the box before he pokes his head out in a playful game of Hide and Seek. He knows he has to close the doors quickly or Nonna will tickle him. We spend the next half hour playing all sorts of variations of this game. Or he may tug on my arm to pull me inside his hideaway. Even though I do not fit, I hunch up tight and manage to squeeze my head and shoulders in the doorway where I lie wedged while we sing songs together. If I’m very lucky and he’s tired, we just cuddle together. After a while, I’ll leave him in his hideaway to his own devices (under a watchful eye of course), and in no time at all, he has stuffed all of the pillows from the couch inside to see how many will fit.

“Come, Nonna,” he proudly squeals, pointing excitedly as he shows off his handiwork.

So what was my profound realization? Less really is more. By providing opportunities for our children and grandchildren to discover their own creativity with a few simple things—turning them loose in the back yard with nothing more than a canning jar for instance—or by providing them with simple, unstructured playtime, we are actually fostering their development. We shouldn’t feel guilty about sitting back and encouraging them to amuse themselves (for short periods of time if they are young). We should resist the urge to over-manage or simply entertain our children and grandchildren. By doing so, we’re actually robbing them of the opportunity to develop essential life skills: self-reliance, creativity, resourcefulness, and problem solving to name just a few.

Although I never thought I would admit this, I have come to appreciate the wisdom of my parents more and more as I have aged, and so I am sure there will be times I will tell my grandson exactly what my own mother told me when I was a little girl: Go play!

Susan Gnucci is a local author and a proud “nonna” to an adorable two-year-old grandson. She enjoys sharing her experiences as a first-time grandparent.