Yesterday I attended an online symposium on play. Maybe you, like me, can remember the days of playing all day and it not seeming like a waste of time. The days of moms pushing kids outside and saying, "Don't come back until lunch," are scarce. I was reminded during the symposium that for young children (ages 2-8) time spent playing is decreasing due to technology, time constraints, the lack of outdoor spaces, the academic push, and the prevalence of organized sports and activities. Even in schools the push to decrease recess time and "center" time in favor of "learning time" is pervasive. But, if we are to examine what is truly good for young children (and older children!), we must carefully consider child directed and initiated play.
Kay Redfield Jamison, noted psychologist and writer, stated, "Children need the freedom and time to play. Play is not a luxury. Play is a necessity." Instead of a time filler or worse yet, a time waster, I would contend that play is the activity children need to learn and grow both in school and out of school.
What are the benefits of play and why does your child need it? Numerous books have been written on this topic alone, but here is a short list:
play is enjoyable,
play requires active engagement (unlike television which requires passive engagement),
play is important for social, cognitive, and behavioral development,
play develops perspective taking which leads to empathy,
play with open ended materials activates prior learning and sets up scaffolding for children to bridge their learning.
Parents have known since the beginning of time (or at least since the beginning of Amazon) that kids will sometimes enjoy playing with boxes more than playing with the actual toy. It could be said that this phenomena is the basis of "loose part" play. The theory of loose parts play was developed in 1972 by Simon Nicholson. It refers to play with objects that do not have a defined purpose.
Loose parts spark imagination, curiosity, and can create the backdrop for infinite learning - both in school and out of school. Play, in and of itself, can be the activity rather than the time filler.
So, what three things can you do to encourage play?
Gather some materials. Open ended objects that can be used in multiple ways and have no predetermined purpose (unlike electronic toys, or toys that do the playing for the child) are a great way to stock your play place. Loose parts can be sorted, counted, alphabetized, seriated, put together, taken apart, etc., so the learning is limitless. Some loose parts that kids usually love are: boxes of all sizes, containers, lids, acorns, pom-poms, pipe cleaners, play dough, sticks, shells, rocks, tubes, and any other items you can imagine.
2. Create a space. Not much is needed for the space. It can be indoors or outdoors.
It should be free of hazards, but include some healthy risk so that children can learn decision making skills as they relate to risk. As you think of your space, you should also have a clean-up plan for the space. Maybe it is something that can be kept out, or maybe it all goes back in a container for the next time.
3. Make time for it. Again, this seems simple, but in this hurried world it can get lost.
If you are just starting out with the concept of free play, start small. Set a timer for 15 minutes and let your child simply play. Maybe it is while you are prepping dinner, or getting ready for the "next activity." Simply say, "I'm going to set a timer for 15 minutes and let you just play." Resist the temptation to direct, instruct, or model for your child. Rather, let the play be child directed.
Rest assured that this is not wasted time. Your child's imagination, creativity, and self-motivation is growing. This is time well spent.