We often think of play as a break from learning and something that kids desperately need to give their brains a rest, but for young children, playtime is not just a break, it is a critical component of development that prepares their brains for more complex learning.
I love spending a part of each day teaching my children the fundamentals such as the ABCs, the joys of reading, basic math functions and concepts, and vocabulary, but the majority of each day my little ones are engaged in the most important aspect of childhood: play.
Research is showing that play is so important in fact, that it has become the foundation for a wildly successful preschool curriculum called Tools of the Mind. In the chapter, “Can Self-Control be Taught?” from their book, NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman explain how when children are engaged in this mature, multidimensional, sustained play, they develop self regulation and other executive functions that lead to impressively high levels of academic success.
Tools of the Mind: Taking Play to the Next Level
The way that children play in a Tools classroom occurs in a way that takes play seriously…because that is the way it is structured. In preschools around the country, children have played firehouse. But after about ten minutes of holding a pretend fire hose and putting out a fire, children often get bored and distracted and move on to the next thing. In a Tools classroom, however, children are engaged for sustained periods of time.
Bronson and Merryman explain how,
“Play has a joyful randomness, but it’s not sustained. In Tools classrooms, by staging different areas of the room as the variety of settings, and by asking kids to commit to their roles for the hour, the play is far more complicated and interactive. The children in the house call 911; the operator rings a bell; the firefighters leap from their bunks; the trucks arrive to rescue the family. This is considered mature, multidimensional, sustained play.”
Tools of the Mind is based on the Vygotskian Approach where the belief is that the most important things children can learn aren’t facts and skills, but are instead a set of mental tools…tools of the mind. 🙂 Vygotsky believed that the most effective learning happens when the new skills and concepts being taught are just on the edge of emergence, or in the zone of proximal development. He also believed that children need scaffolding, or gentle guidance, during this time to help them reach the next level of understanding.
For a young preschool aged children, the most important thing in their world is play (and it continues to be very important as children get older as well), and with a little gentle guidance, we adults can help our children take their play to the next level. (If you want to learn more about the Tools of the Mind curriculum, including how, why, and proof that it works, read my blog here, and if you want to see if there’s a Tools school near you, click here.)
Play Time at Home
As much as I love the Tools curriculum and as much as I know my kids would thrive in it, I still don’t think it’s as effective as the preschool experience I can provide at home. While I don’t facilitate a certain theme, I do have little areas set up all over the house that are designed to encourage creative and imaginative play.
I also don’t have an entire class of students, but I do have three children at home and one in kindergarten. We all follow a pretty basic daily routine, regardless of what day it is and who is here, where the children have to do their morning routine (eat breakfast, get dressed, etc.) and then do three activities before having any screen time. Sometimes we plan out our activities and sometimes we just let one lead to the other, but almost every single day consists of building with legos, reading huge stacks of books, playing with flashcards, doing some sort of coloring or art activity, playing imagination games, and playing outside.
Tips and Tricks for Encouraging Creative and Imaginative Play
Nothing makes me happier than seeing my children involved in elaborate games of imagination with each other. My older ones, who are now four and six, love creating intricate worlds of imagination that entertain them for hours. My two year old loves watching them and getting lost in her own little world of learning, and our ten month old, who is just starting to crawl, is always a part of everything!
When I was a 3rd and 4th grade teacher, it always baffled me when I would see kids on the playground who had no idea what to do with themselves. I remember how much I enjoyed playing imagination games with my younger brother when we were both little, and I always thought it was something that just happened naturally, but now I’m seeing that it works best when it’s gently scaffolded. Here are the things that I enjoy doing with my kids that have fostered creative and imaginative play.
1. Involve Kids In Your Day to Day
I’ve noticed that a lot of the elements of my children’s play is about reenacting our normal daily routines and activities. I just love overhearing them role playing or playing with their little figures as they go through the steps of doing chores, cooking food, shopping, going to the bank, being naughty, getting a punishment, going to bed, and so on. By involving my kids and talking to them about what I’m doing, how I’m doing it, and why I’m doing it, they are gathering information to use during their imaginative play time.
2. Provide Scenarios
I love channeling my inner child and just playing with my kids. Sometimes we play dress up and sometimes we use little figures, but together we create these creative and imaginative worlds that can transform a mundane day into something extradonary. Children will sometimes spontaneously create these scenarios on their own, but with all of my kids, I feel like I have had to really help them get the ball rolling in this area.
As I see it, there are two types of scenarios. The first one is just playing something like playing fire house, or pet shop, or grocery store, or house. In this type of scenario, kids are acting out the different roles and performing the duties that coincide with each role. The next type of scenario involves a problem and a solution, and is a more sophisticated form of imaginative play usually (but not always) involving toy figures.
When my kids were old enough and started to seem a little bored with their standard imaginative play, I introduced a few problem and solution scenarios, and the kids really took off with them. The scenarios are typically set in the whole good versus evil theme, and they are pretty basic. There’s usually a bad guy of sorts, like an evil wizard, a hungry dinosaur, a super villain, or a thief, and they want to something evil like kidnap someone, steal something, destroy some place, or put a spell on someone. My kids are then the good guys (or one is good and the other is evil) and they have to evade the bad guy(s) or gal(s) and save the day. To help drag this out, I might say that they bad guy left a string of clues throughout the house or they are under some terrible magic spell and must collect some specific ingredients to make an anti-potion.
3. Give Prompts
If I notice that the imaginative play is starting to fizzle, I like to casually listen for a few minutes to see where I can provide some prompts to extend the action for a little while. Just like the teacher in the Tools classroom, I am there to gently scaffold them to the next level. Many times, my prompts are just questions, “Why did so and so do that? What is he going to do next? What about this one?” and that is usually enough to encourage another round of play.
4. Role Playing
Role playing gives kids a chance to step outside of themselves, and it gives them the courage to say and do things that they normally wouldn’t. As they’re testing out these different personality traits, they can even find resolutions to things they may be struggling with in their daily lives. I like encouraging my children to really become their imaginative characters, and so I’ll model a variety of different voices and character traits. Once my children are “in character”, I like to ask them questions that helps to define their character’s motivations and plans for action. “How does he/she feel about that? Why is so-and-so sad, mad, happy? What are you going to do about it? ”
Playing with props is one way to really help kids become deeply involved in their imaginative play. Whenever it’s Halloween season, I love to go to thrift stores and stock up on costumes to fill our costume closet. I’m always especially on the lookout for different types of hats. Putting on a full costume can take a bit of time, but kids can quickly put on a hat that immediately transforms them into someone else. I also have an assortment of magic wands, swords, pom-poms, hooks, claws, boxing gloves, and a horse on a stick that are within easy reach. The hats and costumes are hung on sturdy hooks that the kids can easily reach in a location that’s accessible to everyone.
6. Favorite Characters
We don’t watch a lot of TV in our house, but when we do, we encourage our kids to watch the same movies or shows over and over (based on their interests) so that they can bring their favorite characters into their imaginative play. For example, our youngest daughter, who is 2, is really into Dora. She loves playing imaginative games with her Dora toys, reading Dora books, and learning Spanish. Our four year old son, Elliot, loves anything that has to do with superheroes, dragons, Godzilla, and monsters. And our six year old daughter, Ruby, loves Digimon, My Little Pony, princesses, and anything that has to do with Miazaki. (You can read here why we don’t believe in banning screen time for children here.)
When she’s home from school, Ruby is usually the one leading the imagination games, and she is REALLY into Digimon these days, so her and Elliot will play Digimon outside for hours and groan when it’s time to go inside and get ready for bed. The other day, I printed out all of the Digimon characters on card stock with their names printed below, and after Ruby cut them all out and arranged them in the order of their transformations, her and Elliot used the printouts like little figures and played with them for hours. We followed another one of Ruby’s ideas and made sugar cookies and some butter cream/cream cheese frosting sorted into bowls and dyed every color imaginable so that she could make a Digimon cookie for each character. I just love the way her mind works!
7. Little Figures
When children are involved in role playing, it can get loud, messy, and really take over the house, but when they make their little dolls and figures come to life, it can be a very calm and contained activity. My kids have not really seemed motivated to play imaginatively with their little figures much until they have been three and older, but I’ve noticed our two year old daughter Ophelia playing with My Little Pony figures imaginatively in our Batman house from time to time.
I am always on the look out at garage sales and thrift stores for any type of dollhouse or other similarly compartmentalized structure. We currently have three really big doll houses, a Batman cave, a few Little People farm structures, a tree house, and a castle. Next to each play house, I have a little basket of figures that I keep sorted separately from the other toys. Instead of having all of our toys in one playroom, I like having them tucked around the house so that they have something to play with in every room.
You can make any little stuffed animal come to life and talk to your child, but puppets are really great for teaching children about imaginative play. My ten month old, Julian, loves chewing on the eyeballs of our Kermit the Frog puppet while I make him talk in a funny voice, and he laughs every time I make Kermit try to bite his finger, and Ophelia, two, loves it when the puppets tickle her and talk to her. As kids get older, they can engage more and more with the puppets and have conversations with them. Sometimes talking to a puppet about a problem they are having is a way to elicit more information than if you would just talk to them directly.
9. Imaginative Toys
We certainly don’t ban toys with batteries or anything, but I have found that the less a toy does on it’s own, the more a child can do with it. We have little baskets or boxes throughout our house with toys like big brown blocks, small colored blocks, alphabet blocks, wooden train track pieces, Lincoln Logs, K’nex, big Legos, small Legos, puzzles, stacking cups, sorting bins, and more that encourage sustained imaginative play. To encourage children to play with these toys, I like cutting the flaps off from my large flat Amazon boxes and use them for storage bins. I have found that children really only like playing with the toys that they can see, and so I try to spread them out as much as I can.
10. Arts and Crafts
Nothing sparks the imagination quite like a little arts and crafts session. I have a place in our house called our “home school table” that has markers, crayons, pencils, coloring books, activity books, blank paper, colored paper, scissors, fancy scissors, tape, glue, stickers, and more all within easy reach. I organize the materials on the table or in the nearby bookshelf with boxes and bins all neatly labeled. I also have some really nice cupboards full of supplies that I can have easy access to and one whole cupboard with board games and puzzles.
I spend a lot of time organizing my home to appeal to children and to be practical for adults. As a busy mother of four, I have a lot to do around the house to keep things up and running, and so I like having my home set up so that the kids can be engaged in creative and imaginative play and/or learn something (ABC videos, etc.) while I fold laundry, prepare food, or clean. To read more about how I set up my home in a way that encourages independent, creative, and imaginative play and learning, click here.
Having routines in place really helps me to be able to meet the basic needs of my kids (sleep, food, love), and when their basic needs are met, they are in a great place to play independently, use their creativity, stretch their imaginations, and learn something new. Check out my blog about creating a summer routine that helped all of us to be productive here.
13. Sustained Attention
Anything that helps children to stay actively engaged for long periods of time is extremely beneficial. When you think about an adult who is able to focus for extended periods of time on a difficult task while problem solving, that is pretty much the epitome of success. Training kids to be engaged and motivated on an activity of their choosing for increasing amounts of time is something that doesn’t just happen overnight. It starts in small amounts when they are very young, and it gradually increases over the years to result in a well rounded and balanced individual who is capable of being self-directed, intrinsically motivated, goal oriented, organized, and a problem solver. As I work with each of my children who are all at different levels, I always try to keep the goal of sustained attention in mind.
In my experiences as a classroom teacher and now as a parent, there are a few things that stand out to me as being some of the most important aspects in the development of a child, and play is one of those things. My husband and I have learned that it is more important to slow down in life so that we can really listen to each of our children and provide them with the necessary scaffolding to grow than it is to run around going from one activity, one group, and one destination to the next.
Children need an extended amount of time in a warm, safe, and nurturing environment and that is why we are both so fortunate that I can stay home (finally) with our little ones. (Read more about my journey to become a stay at home mom here and how I’ve found happiness as a stay at home mom here.) By giving value to play and by treating it as the important developmental step that it is, I am confident that not only are we giving our children the tools that they will need to be developmentally and academically successful, but we are filling their childhoods with what being a kid is (should be) all about: play.
*Click here to read my blog that goes into more detail about Tools of the Mind.