Have you ever read the research on play? It is amazing stuff. Humans, especially human children, learn faster, make more brain connections, and develop more skills when they do them through play. Maria Montessori said “Play is the work of children” and she was right! Play is the way children are designed to engage with the world. It is the best way for them to learn social skills and develop physically, emotionally, and cognitively. Play gives children a way to make connections for themselves, which means they understand things far more deeply than when they are taught about it by an adult.
Some children seem to be born ready to “go play” from the moment they learn to crawl. But what if you have a child that doesn’t seem to know how? What if they ask you to play too? What if you feel like your child needs a bit of a push towards play time? Here’s my guide to how, and why, you can create more play in your home.
Set the Stage
While it is important that children create their own worlds while they play, you can get them started. I love building with blocks. It helps children develop fine motor skills and designing a castle takes a lot of planning. Even simple block play instills a sense of physics as kids learn what will and won’t balance before falling over. But parents sometimes think their child doesn’t enjoy blocks, because their set is rarely used. The trouble with blocks for some kids is that it can be hard to get started. The box of blocks is too open ended and the child doesn’t know where to begin. You can solve this problem by sitting and building roads (be sure to have cars to roll down them), homes, towers or castles with your child. The first few times, you may do all the work, while your child is the demolition crew, but eventually, they will get the hang of it.
If your child knows how to build, but those blocks are collecting dust, you can make them magical again. Just pull them out while your child sleeps and create a castle in the living room for your child to discover when they wake. Actually, you can create half a castle, or part of a small city, something for your child to complete, and watch how it will pull them in. Even tweens or teens who haven’t touched a block in years often will be drawn in to help finish the tiny town.
Creating an invitation to play can happen with all different kinds of toys. You can set up the train track or decorate the doll house. However, you can also work on a smaller scale. Put out LEGO bricks on the dining table and build half of something, or give a challenge like “build a car.” Set up their doll in a stroller by the door with a note that says “Walk me” or lay out the naked doll beside a few outfits and challenge them to “dress me up for a tea party!” Children respond to these invitations to play because it removes the question of wondering how to get started. As an adult, I often struggle to stat a new project, or even start cleaning the kitchen. The question of where to start is extra hard for neurodiverse children and a boost from you can help. Go on the walk with the doll or make a car too. Once they get started, they often play well on their own.
Are you scared of a mess?
If you said no, there are lots more ways to set your child up for play that are guaranteed to work. Sensory play is a term that has become popular lately. It basically means that your child is engaging their sense of touch, taste, smell, hearing, sight, and balance more while playing. This means that their brain is getting more sensory input, which is actually really good for kids. The extra input can not only be calming, but it can also help them make more neurological connections.
What does this fancy type of play involve? Things children have been doing for a long long time. Sand boxes and digging in the dirt may be the oldest and most classical example. Followed shortly by play-dough, the most engaging mess ever marketed. The key to engaging a child in either of these for very long, is usually in the tools you provide. While the classic bucket and shovel make a sand box more fun, a dump truck or a garden spade are also valid choices for sand play. But if you really want to keep them occupied in the sand box, hide pennies, coins or seashells for them to find. Children can’t resist a treasure hunt.
Play-doh sells many amazing kits, but you can also make some at home, and add your own rolling pin, cookie cutters and kitchen tools to the play space with great results. The number of play dough recipes on line is actually amazing. You can make it scented, edible, or allergen free. Just be sure to select one you feel is safe for your child.
These kinds of play give your child tons of sensory input from the dough or sand, and creates the opportunity for the child to imagine far more than what they are actually engaged in. They can be a pirate digging for treasure or a baker making cakes for the queen. The mess sets the stage, but what happens inside of the child is what is important.
The height of childhood play is when a child’s imagination is involved in their play. Why? Because this is where your child learns to create and solve problems. If they have a friend or sibling to play with, they learn to engage with them on this deeper, imaginative plane of existence. The rules are different when you play. You have to agree to those rules, or the game isn’t fun. This negotiation, whether it is alone or together, helps the child’s brain prepare for the complex tasks of adulthood. Can you imagine having a different job than the one you have now? That might be because you pretended as a child to be many things.
Imaginative play can happen with all of the classic style toys that came before the push for “educational toys” or with no toys at all. What I have found has helped my kids the most is to actually reduce the number of toys in their space to a manageable number. The reduction of actual things seems to help kids see more potential in what they have. While minimalism is fine, my own method was to create boxes of toys and rotate our toys in and out of the attic monthly. This kept the many toys we had feeling fresh and left more room to play with those that were out for their turn.
Dress up clothes, puppets and even blocks become part of the background noise if they are around all the time. However, if they disappear for a while, they are new and interesting when they reappear. I also find that most children will learn to play with a toy in a new and more advanced way after a break from it.
Play is important
Adults often assume their child will figure out how to play on their own and that if they don’t, it won’t matter. This isn’t true. Children need other people, either adults or children, to help them explore their world. We are social creatures made to learn from each other. I hope these ideas have given you some ideas for how to help your child play more.
About the Author
Laura Sowdon, OTR/L is an occupational therapist, writer, speaker, educator and creator of the Five Senses Literature Lessons homeschool curriculum. She has worked as an occupational therapist with children in public and private schools, as well as private practice. Laura has taught and managed homeschool co-ops as well as homeschooling her own three children. Laura is dedicated to the idea of educating children at a pace that aligns with brain and physical development milestones and respects neurodiversity in all its forms.