I can’t think of a parent that doesn’t want their child to play. We know that play is, quite simply, good for kids.
Infants play spontaneously without encouragement, and sometimes despite of many distractions. As they age, our expectations of them tend to change. We encourage them, with the best of intentions, to be more intentional, and we provide opportunities to learn through play.
What happens to children’s intrinsic motivation to play when they are always provided with play prompts? Play dates, parks with play structures, and art invitations are all a part of my children’s play, but only a part of it.
How do my plans interrupt or prevent my children’s developing play ideas?
In my more absent-minded or ambitious days, an idea as simple as letting children play can easily fall by the wayside – a victim of my good intentions and life’s obligations.
I’ve developed a few habits that have helped keep unstructured play time a part of our lives.
Schedule Unstructured Time Even life in a small town can be filled quickly with social appointments, from park dates to running errands. I protect our stay-at-home days, which are typically Mondays and/or Fridays. We may go for a short walk around our neighborhood, but we spend most of our morning at home and do not schedule play dates with friends or go to the park (even though both are places where free play can happen). As my daughters are 3 years and 1 year old, we are lucky that there really are no obligations that we can not schedule to our convenience. I realize a whole day is not easy to come by, especially as children age, but some time each week in these early years contributes to the development of the habit of play.
Have Toys Available that Encourage Independent Play and Let Children Move them as Needed. Open-ended play can be messy. My daughters move furniture and blankets all over the house, lining up all of our chairs to become train cars, and blankets to become beds, blocking the main artery of our home. Designating a space such as a child’s room, bed, or closet (even where play scenes can be left and revisited without changing the flow of the whole house) is one way to let independent play develop.
Be a Willing Play Partner. It seems like right before I end my cleaning routine – say, finishing the dishes – my daughter brings me some variety of empty mugs, forks, and rocks, and asks me to “eat” with her. I have never regretted putting those chores aside and playing instead. She does not ask for my participation frequently (that is where my other daughter, Moon, comes in), so when she does we can always come to some agreement about when that can happen. It is not always right away, but when I say I will do something, I follow through.
Let Children Take the Lead. Infants and toddlers who have sustained the ability to play independently may not need a partner, so holding back may ultimately be more encouraging of play than jumping in.
Play Outside. Nature provides infinite chances to play. We love parks, but have recently been spending more time outside playing in spaces that the girls can run on, hide in, climb over, discover, and marvel at. Heading to the beach? Leave the sand toys at home. Toys can be fun to bring along, but how about leaving all of those things behind so that children can create their own games.
How do you keep play a top priority in your everyday lives?