Power of Play!

MN SEOUL

I’m fortunate to be a Play Enthusiast at the Minnesota Children’s Museum, and recently was invited to discuss why play is so important, as well as the challenges in prioritizing play in our daily lives. Here is my reflection on one of the questions they asked us and how it also intertwines with my transracial experience.

“Minnesota Children’s Museum reminds us that creative play is not a luxury but a critical part of a child’s development”

Q: What was your key takeaway about the museum and the power of play?
My key takeaway is that we live in a time where we have to actually teach ourselves new ways to play, find time for play, and make play a priority. The USA, in my opinion is a perpetrator of taking individualism to an unhealthy level. This leaves too many kids village-less, friend-less and left to bouncing within the confines of their home’s walls day-in, day-out. While some fortunate souls seem to have actual neighborhoods where they trust their neighbors, in general this is the exception, not the rule. The only way to get playtime with other kids outside the immediate family is through coordinated playdates, or via extended family. From culture to culture and neighborhood to neighborhood within the USA, this of course, varies. My personal bias is that each culture navigates this time in human history differently. The more one has been lead to believe individualism is positive and collectivism is negative, the less I think organic, healthy and completely natural play with other kids occurs. Therefore, as a society we have an even bigger responsibility than ever to promote play. If not with a village of actual kids nearby (be it relatives or not), then definitely with siblings and/or caregivers. A lot of people in the USA, including myself have to make a concerted effort to ensure play time within the family and with other families happens regularly. The Minnesota Children’s Museum reminds us that creative play is not a luxury but a critical part of a child’s development, especially in early childhood. The Minnesota Children’s Museum has prioritized promoting a positive place for all ages where play is the winner and not only agreed upon as important, but critical to one’s life.

As a Korean adoptee (entirely raised in Minnesota, but chose to live in Korea in 2008-2010, and then again in 2016 for 6 months) I can reflect on my time in 2016 when I was living in Korea with my three-year-old. South Korea is criticized for turning out unhappy children (mostly due to a repressive education system for kids K-12), but the other side of that coin is that most Koreans live in a much more dense neighborhood than that of any kid in the USA. (Honestly…nothing really compares to majorly dense cities like Seoul!) While we were there, we saw that these huge all-look-same apartment communities produced wonderful little playgrounds, and kids who lived a stone’s throw from one another could easily meet up to play together. Walking places is so easy in Seoul compared to anything I’ve experienced in the Twin Cities. In Korea, it was rare for us to visit a nearby apartment community playground and not see a ton of children playing there. Because many urban Koreans rely on this type of housing, I’d say in this regard, it’s a more genuine “village” feeling than that of what we experience in the USA. Many Americans live in spread out suburbs, and even in the actual cities, it’s not likely that thousands of people all live in the same .5 mile radius. For me, this was a refreshing side of Korea – that as a person entirely raised in Minnesota, I appreciated. I am also an extrovert, so the density did not bother me. I loved seeing many families at these playgrounds.

Another difference I saw as a parent in Korea is that kid cafes are a common place for parents with kids to meet up. Kid Cafes are basically coffee shops with huge kid play places and they are pretty easy to find throughout Korea. Here are two videos of really awesome kid cafes that my son enjoyed: Cocomong and Petit. What’s particularly nice about these cafes is that some of them allow for parents to kick back and relax while staff interact with the kids. Some kid cafes have more staff interaction than others, it just depends. Even so, imagine meeting up with a few of your favorite moms, drinking some tea or coffee together and relaxing while your kids play around…and there is paid staff there to assist and ensure kid’s safety! I found this to be very nice and refreshing coming from the USA. (You can judge me all you want for not wanting to interact with my kiddo 100% of the time, but the way most kid cafes balanced the parent involvement time was pretty awesome.) In addition to this, it’s at these many kid cafes that we visited where I saw how Korea is more of a collectivist culture than the USA. If my son was struggling to reach something, and I wasn’t in arm’s reach at that exact moment, a parent would kindly lift him up to help him. It happened on more than one occasion and honestly, it touched my heart a bit because in the USA, it seems quite rare for people to do that to other people’s kids. We are bogged down with worries that people will be offended that we touched some stranger’s kid. This individualistic thinking is problematic, but I understand where it is derived from. People here in the USA worry about molesters or strangers a whole lot in this society. It’s a good and bad thing, and while I can see both sides of the argument, when you leave the USA and experience another way, it can really be refreshing.

All this being said, I consciously chose to move back to Minnesota after 6 months in Korea for a lot of reasons. My time there was short, but well spent, and I learned a lot. Parenting in a country that is still quite foreign to me, (even with an invested interest in Korean culture) and navigating a language barrier but looking the part…it was exhausting at times! But, I truly learned more about Korean culture by being a parent there and being in family spaces. I learned that some of the downsides for parenting in Korea is that most people work SO MUCH that there’s very little time for playing. If both parents work full time at a typical job, it would make it impossible to incorporate play into kids lives every day. Here in Minnesota, I can play with my son every single day, and so can my husband. We cherish this after not having that during our time in Korea. We also know that as kids get older and become school-aged, the amount of class time that most Korean kids face is ridiculous. It’s not uncommon for some 8 year old kids to be in an academic setting from sun-up until midnight. Kids in Korea are generally very sleep-deprived and taught to study hard and value competition too fiercely, in my opinion.

My first time living in Korea was when I was not a parent yet, so I didn’t think about this stuff at all. I’m (mostly) happy to be back to Minnesota despite missing all the great aspects of Korea, and I am still actively seeking out great play places and awesome people to play with! Many of us are excited to soon enjoy the all-new Minnesota Children’s Museum with our kids. We know that this is the time – now more than ever to promote as much play as possible, and MCM will be a fantastic place for all of us to engage in fun playtime!

Jumping and climbing at a kid place in Jeonju, Korea

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