There is no hiding my passion for play. I’ve written in the past about how important free, child-directed play is in the development of children. As a counselor, I have been trained in many play therapy techniques. I’ve read the literature, I’ve gone to the classes, I’ve watched the videos, I have spent the past 9 years preparing myself to play with children in such a way that promotes their development socially and emotional.
But where is this instruction manual? The one that tells you how much free, child-directed play influences your youngster. The one that shows you exactly how to play WITH your child and tells you all the right things to say. The one that tells you no matter how many nice, expensive, light-up toys you buy your child, nothing is more impactful that a train of couch cushions or an old, empty box. The answer is I don’t know. I do NOT know where the manual is. All I know is I have information you might want.
As summer quickly approaches, your child will be left with more free time on his hands than he (or you) knows what to do with. Structured camps and summer school are wonderful ways for your child to interact with other children during the summer months, but just as important is your child’s relationship with you and his ability to play freely.
Pick a place for play:
Choose a context/place (ie. indoors, outdoors, at the park, in the kitchen, in a sandbox) for play. Materials can be very simple and should be open-ended—a cardboard box can be many things, but a remote control car leans heavily toward being a remote control car (which constrains the child’s imagination). Need an idea? Bring your child outside with only a bucket of water and a shovel. Encourage her to explore. Let her get dirty. Let her make you a mud pie and let HER tell you what she wants you to do with that mud pie. Don’t ever assume ANYTHING with children. You may think that mud pie is for eating, but she may have other plans for you!
Children’s imaginations are magnificent. There are toys in my room that in my mind are clearly just one thing. For example, this rubber, eraser cassette tape. But this has been many things to a child. A skateboard, hover craft, cell phone, DVD, laser shooter . . . remember I teach all boys 😉
Let your child direct the play:
Don’t set up a plan for play time. As much fun as it would be to set your child up in the kitchen with some baking soda and water and PLAN to have them mix them together and make that gooey substance we all made in elementary school . . . DO NOT DO IT! Now set them up with those supplies sure, but hold no expectations as to what will happen with that water and baking soda . . . and be prepared for most of it to end up on your floor. And when it does . . . have your child clean it up! Because now let me tell you all the wonderful, wonderful things the broom in my classroom has become. It’s been used as a horse, a gun, a vacuum cleaner, a sword, my big bear’s hair brush, a drum stick.
Never ever plan out the play. Maybe the kids won’t play the way you would have imagined, but they will probably play in a way that satisfies their needs. There’s room for some direction so that they don’t get hurt or break items in your house. But by directing their attention to these things, you are making them aware of things around them they probably haven’t noticed. You are posing questions they haven’t thought about. When you set your child up with that baking soda, water, bowl, and spoon, and your child decides to take all these things and watch them drop to the floor . . . bring to their attention what different objects do when they hit the floor. When you are outside digging or making mud pies, point on how the sun reflects off the bucket or how the clouds make shapes in the sky.
Think of your child as a question seeker, not an answer seeker. In fact, no matter what your child asks you, respond with, “Now, that’s something to think about.” I got this quote straight from my curiosity lesson I used with my boys at school.
Reflect on the play afterward:
Children need help organizing their thoughts and memories. They constantly need to hear you thinking out loud so that they know how to think in their heads. After you’ve played with your child, talk to them about what they’ve done. Try to help them put it in order.
Parent: “Tell me what we did today.”
Child: “We made mud pies!”
Parent: “We went outside, dug in the dirt, and made mud pies. What did we have to add to the dirt to make it all muddy?”
Child: “Probably a little bit of water, but then the bucket tipped over so we had a lot of mud.”
etc, etc, etc. . . .
Children will remember details about things you have long forgotten . . . and by doing this, they are cluing you into what matters most to them. Was it the building part? What is the emotions attached to the experience part? Was it looking at the clouds? Was it asking the questions?
In about 30 – 40 minutes of play, doing the 3 things above, you have allowed your child to be creative, use his imagination, develop social skills, problem-solve, understand how to relate to you and other people . . . but best of all you have built a better relationship with your child. You have learned more about them in that 30 minutes of uninterrupted play than you ever would while they played with that remote control car or watched a movie.
30 minutes a day . . . that’s my summer challenge to you!