Not all types of play have these benefits, of course, and occasionally it can be difficult for an outside observer to discern “good play” from teasing or mindlessness. (For example: Are the campers on the field actually playing tag, or are they just taunting each other?)
In these situations, adults should look for three indicators of playful learning: choice, wonder, and delight. Choice looks like kids setting goals, developing and sharing ideas, making rules, negotiating challenges, and choosing how long to play. Wonder looks like kids exploring, creating, pretending, imagining, and learning from trial and error. Delight looks like happiness: kids smiling, laughing, being silly, or generally feeling cozy and at ease.
Rediscovering Play in an Overscheduled World
In our tightly scheduled world, some kids feel uncomfortable when they have the opportunity to play freely. They may retreat to their technology, complain about boredom, or fight. Mardell and Solis provide suggestions on how parents can foster a playful household:
- Plan for play, and create the space for it. If kids have been spending too much time in front of screens, say to them, “Tomorrow, let’s have some of your friends over here to play,” or “Let’s walk over to the playground this afternoon for a few hours and have some fun.”
- Find fun in the materials you have. “A lot of the things that you have in your garage or in your kitchen might actually be quite engaging for children of all ages,” says Solis. Rather than always buying new toys, for example, use leftover Amazon boxes. Say to kids, “You can build a fort, or a time machine, or whatever you want. Take over the living room.” This ability to choose how materials will be used can spur creativity.
- Be open to risk. Part of letting children play is acknowledging that they might get a scrape or bang their knee — and that that’s okay. If you let children know that you trust them to take small risks, they’ll likely enjoy creating and exploring.
- Model play. “There has to be a culture of adult play in order for children to play as well,” says Solis. “If children watch their parents or grandparents having hobbies, enjoying a soccer match, being creative, being outside, then it’s more likely for kids to say, ‘With all this summer time that I have, I’d rather go build a fort than sit in front of the TV.’”
- Play together. “I knew this as a kid, and I’ve experienced this as a parent: Your kids actually do want to play with you,” says Mardell. Build sandcastles together, dress up together, or tell stories together. “Really get into the spirit of the play and doing it together. That’s the beauty of summertime or vacation.”
- Wait out the cries of “I’m bored.” Kids often have to pass through that initial discomfort and recover the space and presence to be self-directed and curious. But with time, they’ll emerge on the other side and settle into an activity.