Three tips for playing with your preschooler (or, “Play is free”)
Almost all parents enjoy playing with their children. Sometimes, though, we try too hard. Kids don’t need expensive toys, digital gadgets, or even our bold leadership to have a great time.
In my last post, I wrote about how play is the proper work of young children. The great thing is that because kids are wired to do it, parents don’t have to provide much by way of structure. In fact, too much structure around kids’ play can be a bad thing!
Just this week in a great email newsletter from PlayScience, I saw two research findings relevant to this point. One study found that the more “directive” mothers were (basically, not letting the kids make their own choices), the less the kids enjoyed themselves and the more grumpy they seemed toward their mothers. (This should not be a surprising finding to anyone who has seen a child at play. A nice write-up on this study is at BabyCenter’s blog.) The second study found that among school-aged athletes who engaged in similar amounts of overall play time each week, those who spent more of their time in free (i.e., unstructured) play had fewer injuries than their peers who spent more of their time in structured play. These two studies offered a nice reminder to me that one of the best things I can do to support the preschoolers I work with is to get out of their way.
This is not to say, of course, that we should simply unleash our youngsters in the yard/living room/garage and walk away. There is something to be said for setting the stage: providing appropriate materials, ensuring a safe space, etc. But what we don’t need to do is be event planners or give our kids shiny new toys (or digital devices!) to entertain them. A while ago I came across a great article on Wired.com listing the five best toys of all time. Before opening, I took a moment to think about what might make the list: Transformers? Barbie? Yo-yo? Slinky? Frisbee? But no, the article was much cooler than that. I won’t steal Wired’s thunder, but I’ll give a teaser: The first toy on the list is a stick.
Here are three tips for providing a great play experience for your children:
1. Set the stage: Choose a context for the play. Outdoors is great (and probably helps prevent nearsightedness!). Materials can be simple and should be open-ended—a cardboard box can be many things, but a DynaTurbo Racer 9000 leans heavily toward being a race car (which constrains the child’s imaginative space).
2. Let the child lead: Don’t set too firm an agenda. Maybe the kids won’t play the way you’d imagined, but they will probably play in a way that satisfies them. There’s room for subtle guidance (e.g., bringing to their attention something interesting that they haven’t noticed, like how the light bounces off the water they’re splashing in, or a tiny insect nearby, or the way different materials behave when dropped onto the ground), but seek to provide many more questions than answers. In fact, no matter what the question, a great answer is, “What do you think?”
3. Reflect later: Kids benefit greatly from our help in learning how to organize their memories. One great way to do this is simply to talk with them about what they’ve done. After a play session, it’s fun to ask the children what they remember, what happened first/next, etc. You’ll be surprised at which minor aspects of the event stuck with them, and these will give you hints about what the children were (and probably still are) interested in.