If you were to imagine an idyllic scene of childhood bliss, I have very little doubt that your vision would include some version of play. Whether you fancy running, climbing, dressing up, acting out a scene, playing on teams or building things just to knock them down, you too probably loved to play as a kid. Across all cultures, babies and children spend as much time as possible playing. Both solo and in groups, if children are left to their own devices, they create songs, stories, sports or adventures. So what is it about play that’s so compelling?
I’ve been the director of a progressive preschool for 12 years, and through my daily experience I know that play is the way that children connect to the world.
Far from arbitrary or a waste of time, play is the very essence of how children develop and grow into capable, critical thinkers. It’s their currency, their access to the expectations and social norms of society, and a critical way to process life’s experiences.
Play is how children learn the way the world works, and how they fit into that dynamic. Essentially, people are designed in a way that enables them to gain fundamental life knowledge, and also achieve happiness, by playing.
As these truths have become more obvious to me, I couldn’t help but notice how little play is left in most modern children’s lives. Our mainstream approach to education doesn’t leave much room for it - kids spend their days in classrooms designed to support achievement and skills that can be measured through testing. Recess is sacrificed to another hour of worksheets, and lunch period is 20 minutes long. After school hours are spent in ballet class, at soccer practice, or learning another language.
Our youngest children, if resources allow, are booked Monday - Friday in parent and child classes, structured playgroups and practicing flashcards. When they are not in these structured activities, many children learn to “unplug” by staring at a screen. In just over 50 years, our entire childhood norm has changed.
Kids no longer roam the streets playing with neighbors, only to return home for dinner. In fact, parents who want to preserve this type of childhood have had to create a movement, “Free Range Kids,” and are often under attack for their neglectful parenting practices.
As we schedule every second of every day I believe we’ve begun to miss the point of childhood.
In a rush for academic success, mastery of technology, making money and getting ahead, I think we sometimes forget the magic of being alive.
This quality is never more tangible than in childhood. As parents and educators we should nurture this magic and recognize how essential it is to a meaningful life. Through time and space for play we give children this gift (and simultaneously support the development of social emotional skills, problem solving abilities and good group dynamics). Today, kids are suffering from higher rates of depression and stress than ever before. I believe making a commitment to play can help solve some of these problems.
With so many benefits, how can adults support kids in play experiences?
Set the Stage
- Create an environment for your child that encourages play. This includes safe, developmentally-appropriate and clean spaces. Natural light and comfortable surfaces further encourage engagement. Give children access to toys and materials at eye level and create expectations of cleanup and other boundaries.
- Offer your child simple “open-ended” materials that can be used creatively for multiple types of play. This type of material encourages problem solving, cooperation, imagination and pushing boundaries.
- Limit materials with batteries or screens. These types of materials discourage individual thinking and can be frustrating and limiting for kids. See a list of suggested play materials for different environments below.
- Utilize recycled and repurposed materials when possible. Get your child involved in collecting natural objects like pine-cones and shells, or saving cans and toilet paper rolls for projects.
- Sort materials in bins or boxes for easy accessibility, organization and cleanup.
Scout Out New Locations
- Play can happen anytime anywhere. Notice where your child is most engaged and seek out other places for them to explore. New playgrounds, parks, museums, community events are great ways for your child to learn to explore and play in new ways. When traveling from one destination to the next, allow for time for physical play throughout the journey.
Step Back and Observe
- Give your child space and time for unstructured play. Children who are not familiar with unstructured play might be uncomfortable at first, however, once they get through the confusion and yes, boredom, they will begin to develop their own play scenarios.
Follow Your Child’s Lead
- Notice the ways your child enjoys playing. Are they a builder? Get them materials and tools. Do they love music? Find a second hand record player and allow them to pick their own albums for dancing. An artist? Give them paper, pens, colored pencils and collage materials to access when they want. Play is spontaneous and for children to engage freely there must be space to engage when the urge strikes them.
Engage with Others Who Share Your Beliefs
- Seek out schools, friends and community to share your belief that play is essential for children to have happy and healthy lives. Organize playdates with families who allow their children to play uninterrupted.
How do you facilitate your child’s play? Create an environment that inspires and is open-ended. Simple, high quality toys (of which Rose and Rex carries many) that can be used multiple ways are best.
Some of my favorite materials to facilitate play are:
- Wood Blocks
- Pots and Pans
- Dress-up Clothes
- Natural Objects
- Doughs and Clays
- Cars, Trucks, Trains and Tracks
- Art Materials
- Outdoor Play Materials
- garden tools
- floating animals