Supporting Children's Play

Children explore and discover their world through play, and the essence of play is free choice: deciding what to do, when and with whom to do it.  In a world that is rapidly changing, children
need to learn and practice the skill of making choices while they play.

Adults can play with children (peek-a-boo with ten month old) or can organize children's play (coaching a soccer team).  They can also support children's play without being directly involved. Here are some suggestions for enriching youngsters' games while leaving control in their hands.

Make Time

Time spent at lessons is not play time.  Children can learn skills they will use later in play, but the essential element of free choice is missing during the lesson themselves.

Provide Space

    * Baby proof your house so that your toddler can explore freely.  Your four year old, with his art projects and ego constructions, can go in the play pen to keep out of baby's reach.
    * Take children to a variety of play spaces, both indoors and outdoors.  Local parks and family resource centers will stimulate different kinds of play.
    * Put an old mattress in the basement to encourage acrobatics and develop gross motor skills.
    * Play is rarely neat and tidy, so learn to put up with dirt and mess.  Protect surfaces with newspapers and plastic cloths to make cleanup simpler.  Make storage easy with shelves and transparent boxes at children's level.

Supply Material and Equipment

Expensive and elaborate toys are not necessary for children to have fun.  A child may in fact be more attracted by the toy's packaging because her imagination can turn it into lots of other things.

    * Become a collector of "loose parts" that can be put together in different ways.  Equipment like big blocks or different sizes of blocks; material like homemade playdough; props like small versions of tools; costumes like capes and hats; bits of "junk" collected in the park - all these allow children to play with ideas and explore possibilities while constructing their own toys.
    * Adding a new element from time to time enriches the play environment and stimulates interest. Try putting a garlic press on the playdough table.  Join a toy library and bring home new toys each month.

Offer Companions

    * Join in your children's play when you are invited, but remember to let them lead.  They make the decisions and you follow.
    * Invite friends over or bring your children to a play group.  Another four year old probably have a longer attention span for playing fireman than you do.

Give Feedback

    * Once you've set the stage for play, just stand back and let it unfold.  You might be needed to lift something heavy or to redirect unsafe play,  but let the children work through their own conflicts.  When they are arguing, remember that working out how to play may be more important for them than actually getting down on the game.
    * Respect children's efforts.  Let them discover for themselves what works and what doesn't. They can't learn to solve their own problems if an adult is always doing it for them.
    * Let children know you think their play is important.  Don't interrupt unnecessarily, and when it's time to stop, give them lots of warning.
    * Weave a particularly successful play episode into a story to tell at bedtime.  "Once there were some children who were ll turned into mice by a magician in a red cape who said the magic words."  Children will recognize their game and play it again.

Keep your own playful sprit alive. Nurture the child in yourself!

By: Betsy Mann, editor of Play and Parenting Connections, with notes from a workshop by Betty Jones of Pacific Oaks Collage, California.  And the Canadian Association of Family Resource Programs