Some parents nostalgically reminisce about their own childhoods filled with spontaneous play, when children went outside, found their own playmates and entertained themselves for hours on end. We have become increasingly concerned with safety and have developed an obsession with learning and the development of skills yet we mourn times gone by when life was simpler. However, parents today often feel guilty if we are not always 100% engaged with our children, maximizing every opportunity for learning while avoiding real and perceived dangers.
The good news is this – children still play and there are many steps parents can take to ensure that children’s play remains process oriented. We can (and should) return play to the domain of children, thereby increasing their autonomy in a developmentally appropriate way. Consider the following DOs and DON’Ts for parents to maximize playtime in order to meet the five criteria of play:
- DO set aside ample time for children to play but DON’T adhere to a strict schedule. Maintain flexibility and responsiveness to children’s wants, needs and energy levels.
- DO offer choices and provide toys that can be used in open-ended flexible ways and DON’T spend so much time planning projects for your children and directing their play.
- DO encourage and expect siblings to play together at home and DON’T schedule too many playdates. Siblings and neighbors of different ages provide a wonderful opportunity for children to spontaneously interact in cross-age groupings that support creativity and development.
- DO require cleanup after playtime. Children of all ages can participate in picking up toys and restoring the play-space to an inviting environment that encourages more creative play next time. DON’T leave the same toys out time after time. If a toy has not been used for a while, consider placing it in a new and perhaps prominent location for the child to discover.
- DO keep your hands busy with chores nearby, but DON’T try to read, work or talk on the phone. Children have an uncanny ability of knowing when your attention is fully occupied elsewhere and will certainly seek out your attention. If you are doing dishes, folding clothes or cooking dinner nearby, your child will see that you are engaged in an important activity and you can observe them from a distance.
- DO occasionally enter into the play by following your children’s cues and the rules they have negotiated. Entering the play in this way can be a good way of extending the play or introducing a new element if done well. DON’T interrupt the play by quizzing the children about what they are doing or attempting to analyze their actions.
- DO accept and encourage alternate rules and uses of toys and games. DON’T adhere to convention by requiring that directions on the toy’s boxes or rules as you remember them be followed.
- DO allow the children to solve their own problems and engage in rough and tumble play. DON’T allow them to physically or emotionally hurt one another. Thus it is important to remain a peripheral observer who uses wisdom to know when to intervene. Resist the urge to jump in without first giving children a chance to work things out on their own.
“A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.” Maya Angelou
Children don’t play because they have a learning objective, they play because it is fun and they like it.
We need to give them the time, space and opportunity to do just that. The benefits of play will become more apparent if we do.