Let kids play like kids

Whether it is at an art exhibition or at home, a tension between a child's playful instincts and her need to learn good behaviour is always present

The ongoing Children's Biennale at the National Gallery took my family two visits to explore fully because we were wonderfully distracted on the first day by Yayoi Kusama's fantastical and compelling circles, spheres and dots at the exhibition called Life Is The Heart Of A Rainbow.

To be honest, as much as my two daughters enjoyed themselves roaming inside the magnificent gallery, I cannot say with certainty they are any closer to carving out an artistic path in their own lives than before the visits.

It's not the fault of the artworks at the biennale, of course. My daughters, who are 10 and seven this year, are probably like most other children their age - happy to be boredom-free for a few hours.

Prodigies aside, young children may learn a few lessons about art at an exhibition, but are more likely to get their thrills from simply running around to play with the bright, colourful things on show, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

It's the exposure to art that counts - in infinite unseen, subconscious ways - wise parents will say. I'm not that wise, I'm nothing if not pragmatic. So I think the biennale worked great for my children because they could be less inclined to be intimidated by art after their experience at the National Gallery. After all, it's like one big indoor playground, isn't it?

Well, no, it isn't. Children are encouraged to interact with some of the biennale installations only within boundaries that defy the ways normal, active children behave.

At Kusama's exhibition, my daughters indeed learnt to stand behind the black line or velvet rope when viewing a work to prevent accidental damage to it. But surely the organisers of an art exhibition curated expressly for children should understand children enough to know that young ones learn well through play and exploration, rather than to expect them to mind their Ps and Qs.

At the Rock & Sphere work, strewn on the floor across a room were large objects of amorphous shapes made from a soft, spongy material. Children are supposed to "engage in imaginative play with two objects that can be taken apart and rearranged to create forms", as the brochure helpfully informs us.

Apparently, "imaginative play" does not include sitting on the objects. Gallery staff are quick to enforce this, seemingly oblivious of the fact that in the play universe of almost all children in the world, large spongy objects are usually sat on.

Unless the installation were a commentary on how children could be taught to abide by the rules and restrain their natural instincts rather than play at what looks like a playground, the no-sitting rule is mind-bogglingly contrary to one of the things art should mean to everyone, not just children - freedom.

In art, there's no doubt also respect for tradition, among other things. I don't mean children should be free to abuse others' or public property. At Kusama's exhibition, my daughters indeed learnt to stand behind the black line or velvet rope when viewing a work to prevent accidental damage to it.

But surely the organisers of an art exhibition curated expressly for children should understand children enough to know that young ones learn well through play and exploration, rather than to expect them to mind their Ps and Qs.

Parents cannot help but know there is always a tension between children's more unruly instincts and their need to learn good behaviour - the need to negotiate that space is constant. A biennale for children has to more cleverly navigate those boundaries too.

In our apartment, which we moved into at the start of this year, we frequently tread on the borders of that tension. I do it because I'm a little obsessive-compulsive; my wife and daughters do it because they have no choice - I subject them to it, sometimes harshly.

Previously, we lived with my in-laws, so I was way more chill. If it's not our place, where we live on our own and I am the main housekeeper, food crumbs and stains on the floor and general messiness bother me a lot less.

The situation could not be more different now. I prefer eating at home of any kind to be kept to an absolute minimum, everyone's belongings to always be returned to their assigned places without delay, no clothes worn outside the home to touch their beds and so on. (The list could carry on for quite a bit, but I shall not bore you and I don't want to be committed to an institution.)

Since February, we've had visitors only once. Even my parents know better than to drop by and see our new place, despite my asking them. I have not said it to them, but I think they know my rule: It's not "Make yourself feel at home", it's "Make yourself feel like you're at my home".

And even I don't relax at home often. There's always something to arrange neatly, another few strands of hair to pick up - so I don't really want others to let down their guard when they're at my place.

In the midst of such craziness, I force myself to let my daughters flirt a little with the boundaries of acceptable behaviour (in my eyes) at home. After all, it is their home too.

While they have to learn good housekeeping practices, they also have to feel free to be themselves.

When we first moved in and each of my daughters finally had a room to call her own, I suggested to them to arrange their wardrobes according to clothing categories such as T-shirts, singlets, underwear, shorts, pants, etc.

My elder daughter rejected the idea, choosing instead to segment her wardrobe by colours - everything white goes to one pile, whether tops or bottoms (only underwear is spared this rule). The very concept baffles me, but I let her do it her way.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder sufferer that I am, I have no idea where to leave her clothes after collecting the clean laundry, since so many items are not strictly of similar colour. So she has to sort it out herself.

My younger daughter, on the other hand, does not think it messy to fill every available space, nook and cranny in her room with her toys, stationery and assorted knick-knacks. Gently I try to suggest that she might want to tidy her room a little, so it's easier for her to find what she is looking for. She responds: "I don't think it's messy, Daddy."

I bite my tongue for the moment and make a mental note to really clamp down on the situation when I find her stuff off the shelves and on the floor.

Really, I mean it this time.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 09, 2017, with the headline 'Let kids play like kids'. Print Edition | Subscribe