The last few weeks have seen a paddock, horse ranch, dance studio, volley ball court, and ice arena built at our house. It has been spurred by a few cowgirls, fairies, princesses, ballerinas, and athletes. Well, actually imagination has built this world of little girl excess, as we have our home remodeled. We are down to dry wall and bare floor for much of our downstairs. But this open space has lent itself so much to our children’s play opportunities.
Imagination is such a wonderful and magical part of children’s play. This is the great force at hand in unstructured children’s play, as opposed to adult directed, structured play. Studies continuously show the importance of such play in children’s lives, particularly in this age of media bombardment and overly scheduled childhoods. Melinda Wenner discusses many of these studies in her article “The Serious Need for Play,”. Most critically, she points to their findings that indicate play is crucial in child development, helping children acquire cognitive skills, social skills, and stress management skills. What can we do to foster our children’s imagination and time for unstructured play? My top ten list would look like this:
1) Limit or eliminate screen time (TV, Video, Computer) on most days.
2) Do not overly schedule your child in extracurricular activities; give them as much time as possible for unstructured play.
3) Get your children outside! There is nothing like a stick, mud, and water.
4) Think open-ended toys, For example dress up clothes, blocks, legos, simple dolls, art supplies, doll houses, boxes, as opposed to toys with one purpose (toys that light up if you push a button). Remember, that a simple large cardboard box that a toy came in is often played with more then the toy that came in it!
5) Let your children be bored. Our children’s lives are not data planners. Imagination fills in the gaps.
6) See what interests your child and encourage this interest during their unstructured play. Personally, I step back if my girls want to play horses, but I may offer up a box for a trough or water.
7) Organize your house and space to encourage such play. In a nutshell, this means less things, more space, more imaginative played.
8) As many schools curtail recess time in favor of schoolwork, inquire as to what your child’s school policy is on recess. Even a small amount of time can be reinvigorating in your child’s school day.
9) Outside, outside, outside! (Yes, the same as #3 but I really do think it is important.) Don’t let snow or rain stop you from letting them outside. Dressed appropriately your child will generally love it.
10) If you’re invited into their play, accept the invitation at least sometimes. Yes, we all have a million things to do. But childhood is short. Our encouragement, either up close or from a distance, lets our children know what they do is important. Play is their work, their fun, and as stated critical vehicle for learning and growth. In terms of family life, it is such a powerful way to bond. Get involved in their fun and have fun! You or I won’t regret taking the time to play when we look back on our days with young children. In fact we will wish we did it more since it helps me regain balance in my life and remember what is really important.