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Practicing Play

We are a playful species. Evidence of toys goes back to ancient times. The Greeks played with yo-yos, the Chinese flew kites, and the Romans had wooden dolls. Even the word “play” is significant in its breadth. We play sports. We play instruments. We join playgroups and have play dates. We create playrooms filled with toys that spark the imagination and encourage play.

As parents, the urge to buy toys is powerful. We provide playthings because we know – we just know – play is important. But when we really think about it, do we know why? And do we understand our role in our children’s playtime?

“Children educate themselves through play,” explains Dr. Peter Gray, research professor of psychology at Boston College and renowned expert on the topic of play. “They are learning how to make and follow rules, how to get along with peers, and how to perform many of the skills important to their culture. They are practicing the things they need to develop in order to become effective adults.”

Play is when kids practice for the demands of the real world and good practice takes time. These days, many kids don’t have room in their busy schedules for good old-fashioned, undirected play. But parents need to make play a p

riority. The benefits of play extend beyond social and emotional. Time invested in playing reaps dividends for cognitive abilities too.

“Through self-initiated play, children create new learning experiences,” says Dr. David Elkind, author of The Power of Play: Learning What Comes Naturally. Simply having the freedom to choose an activity and see it through to a natural completion has a big payoff, according to Dr. Elkind. “It nourishes that child’s powers of concentration and attention.”

Parents need to set the stage for play with safe environments and good toys, but Mom and Dad shouldn’t become de facto playmates. “Parent-child play should really be secondary to child-child play,” advises Dr. Gray.

Today, it’s common to see adults sitting on the floor playing with children. This wasn’t the case a generation ago, and it isn’t the case in most cultures around the world, according to Dr. Gray. We assume that parent-child play is an improvement, a signal that we’re more interested in our children than our parents were in us.

But if you ask parents how much they enjoy playtimes with their kids, most will admit that they’re often a little bored. This boredom is conveyed to kids, no matter how hard we try to hide it, and children will often alter their play to try to reel us in.

When adults do play with children, “it can be hard for the adult not to take control,” explains Dr. Gray. “But once that happens, it’s not play anymore. It’s something the child has to do to please the adult.”

None of this should imply that parents shouldn’t spend time with their children. They should. But adults need to have fun too. “It’s much better for parents to do things with their children that they sincerely enjoy,” explains Dr. Elkind. One of the best ways of ensuring that our children both play and develop lifelong habits of play is to share our personal passions with them.”

Does this mean you’re excused from all future teddy bear tea parties? Not really. If you can schedule playmates to fill some of the time you used to spend playing at home alone with your child, that’s ideal. If not, get down on the floor and just try to follow your child’s lead and have some fun.

Use Your Bean

  • Seek out opportunities for social, free playtime with other children.
  • When you spend time with your child, make fun a priority for everyone involved.

Shopping Tips

  • Any toy that can be used in a multitude of ways is an open-ended toy and will promote the best kinds of play.
  • Games, science kits, and other toys that have a pre-defined playing path also have value — they teach kids to follow instructions and solve problems.
  • Different kids like different kinds of toys. A great toy is anything your child will play with again and again.

What are your family’s favorite games or toys to play with together?

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