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So, you have provided your child with an environment at home that is well suited to their developmental and educational needs…

Now what?

Playrooms are meant to foster play, and play is always supposed to be FUN. Play is joyful, and enriching, delighting in exploration and experience – it is the gift of childhood that keeps on giving. When playing with your child, allow yourself to be present in the moment, feel the joy and have fun. Teaching your children how to do playful things requires playfulness, and imparts to them exactly what they need to know in order to enjoy hours of fulfilling self-directed play.

The secret to keeping your child engaged in Self-Directed Play is to guide them, and continually challenge them to reach just beyond their level of mastery. As a parent, this means taking a few minutes to observe them, encouraging them to persist in the face of failed attempts, supporting them as they work toward a successful outcome. When introducing a new toy or activity, parents need to participate in the initial exploration, stepping back to allow the child to explore, while potentially offering insight into how best to proceed. By engaging with your child for as little as ten minutes at a time, you can be a major contributor to their success and their motivation to learn.

When children are supported and minimally guided in an optimized play environment they:

  • Make important cognitive gains that invite them to use pretend play, symbols, objects, drawings, and words to represent their world.
  • Show significant gains in language skills and communication.
  • Thrive as they experience new materials, roles, ideas, and activities—especially in pretend play.
  • Take greater interest in feelings and become better able to express their emotions and identify those of others.

Adult guidance during the exploration of a new activity can take many forms, including giving a hint, modeling the skill, or adapting the activity to provide an opportunity for success. The goal is to provide just enough assistance so that the child can perform at a skill level just beyond that which they are capable of reaching on their own. Especially when introducing a new toy or activity, there is a minimum level of guidance required from parents in order for children to play optimally and independently for extended periods of time.

How you can set your child up to play independently:

  • Help children develop initiative by encouraging them to make meaningful choices during play, and involving them in planning – “Would you rather use your art supplies in your art space today or play pretend with your dress-up station?”
  • Challenge children’s thinking and extend their learning by posing problems, asking questions, and making helpful comments or suggestions – “Purple Bear has come to our restaurant to order some food – what are today’s specials? I will be in charge of taking to-go orders for a while. Who will use this pad and paper to take Purple Bear’s order? We need a chef!”
  • Extend the range of children’s interests by introducing stimulating new ideas, problems, and experiences - “Purple Bear loved his food, and would like to pay for his meal. Who will bring Purple Bear his bill, then take his money and sort it into our cash register?”
  • Adjust the complexity and challenge of activities as children gain competence and understanding - “This time Purple Bear’s food costs $8.00 and Purple Bear has two five dollar bills. Can you take Purple Bear’s money and help me decide what to give her for change from the register?”
  • Enhance children’s conceptual understanding by talking with them and encouraging children to reflect on and “revisit” their experiences – “What kind of food did we cook for purple bear in our restaurant yesterday? What should we make for Purple Bear today? Is there anything else we should do differently?”
  • Strengthen children’s confidence as learners, motivation to persist, and willingness to take risks by providing activities during which they can be genuinely successful, while still being challenged - “You built a wonderful Lego creation yesterday. Is there some way that you could add to it or change it to make it do something new?”
  • Avoid giving generic praise, and instead give feedback specific to the activity – “Excellent, you got the same number when you counted the marbles again.”
  • Draw on children’s own interests and introduce them to new activities and experiences that are likely to interest them - “Remember how we found that pretty rock on our walk yesterday? I found a story about a kid who loves to collect rocks – do you want to read it with me? Soon, we can go to a museum and look at their beautiful rock collection.”
  • Encourage persistence and effort rather than just praising and evaluating what the child has done – “I see you working really hard to put that puzzle together. Great job sticking with it, I can tell it is a challenge! Try looking for any pieces that are corners or have an edge.”

Remember to look for ways to add a sense of wonder to play – tapping into this sense is a magnificently fun way to grasp the magic in play. Try to keep in mind that your attitude about play and time spent with your child has a massive influence on their level of engagement and self-guided motivation to learn.

As a result of your loving attention, your children will achieve well-rounded development, and become better students and kinder people.

What playful techniques have you used to get your children engaged in play? We want to hear from you in the comments section below!

Image Credit: Mle Jayne Photography