A while back I had a very interesting comment on a post about imaginative play…
Cathy from This Week With the Kids said…
“…I have been writing a series on play on my blog, based on Stuart Brown’s book “play”, and put up a post this week on what innovative, creative and imaginative play is. To me it is play that a child fully conjures – no material set-ups from parents….”
Cathy’s comment really got me thinking.
Is true, pure, creative and imaginative play something that comes entirely and only from the child with no adult influence at all?
I think Cathy’s point is a very valid one.
Children should be free to play when, where and how they want to. This type of ‘free play’ leads to creativity, imagination, innovation and learning that can not be reproduced by adult lead activities with pre-defined goals and outcomes. This is the type of learning I promoted when I was teaching preschool and it is the type of life I want my children to have. Open ended, child lead play is important, hugely important, and often adults either don’t understand or find it difficult to really trust that free play is ‘a child’s work’.
An adult rarely needs to get involved and direct a child’s play. There is no ‘one right way’ to build with legos or play with dolls. I think that often, as adults, we have a tough time letting go of the ideals in our heads and allowing the children to really, fully, take the lead and explore and play in whatever way they are inspired to. Really trusting that our child will learn whatever it is that they need to learn right now, by doing whatever it is that they are motivated to do, can be a big leap of faith in today’s society where we all seem to be so worried about our children being ‘left behind’. This kind of worry about tests scores and hot housing can motivate parents to influence their child’s play in ways that won’t always encourage and build imagination, creativity and innovation.
It’s also easy for adults to get caught up with the excitement of this cool activity or that fancy new gadget. But we often forget that it is an adult concept to care about how cool the painting looks at the end of the art activity or how many new words you can spell after playing with the computer game. Young children don’t, and shouldn’t, care so much about the outcomes, they care about the doing. It is in the doing that they are learning and having fun, not in the done. When it comes to activities like this, creativity and learning really does come from the adult stepping back and allowing the child to really enjoy the process.
I also don’t think that adults necessarily need to play with their children either. Yes, I am one of those mothers who rarely plays with her children. I am available to help whenever I am asked but I don’t really enjoy playing with dolls, or building train tracks, so to pretend I do seems inauthentic and stilted to me. I go about my work, and they go about theirs. Sometimes our paths overlap when one of us is interested in what the other is doing, but often they don’t. I don’t feel obliged to play with them because I don’t believe my adult influence is always wanted, nor always a good thing.
So yes, I am a passionate advocate for child lead, open ended play, but to suggest that play should never be influenced by an adult, well, I think that is kind of impossible.
Everything I do influences my children, and therefore their play, in many, many ways. The choices I make for my children, the toys and equipment I buy for them, the environment we live in, my availability to them, the way I interact, my ideals and values…. all these things influence the way my children play. Being aware of how I influence my child’s play (and learning) is important.
I influence my children’s play by the type of toys and materials I offer them, and I do so very deliberately. I choose to purchase toys and collect materials for my children that are open-ended (ie can be used in a variety of different ways), that are authentic (where possible we like to have toys that a small version of the real thing, rather than cheap plastic replicas, so our children have real china plates etc), that are made from a variety of natural materials (though we do have plenty of plastic toys too and don’t think all plastic is evil), that represent a variety of interests, subjects and life styles.
I influence my children’s play by offering them a safe, loving environment in which to explore. We are lucky, we live on a small property so there is lots of safe outside areas to play in and explore, but there are still some restrictions for safety that influence the way my children play. Indoors we try to set up an area where the children can play safely with little or no adult supervision. We store toys in a way that makes them easy for small people to access them (and pack them up… ha ha) and we don’t have many (any) dangerous or breakable things in the family areas (eg we don’t have a coffee table because all of our children like to leap off them). But there are some adult directed rules that strongly influence the way my children play. Things like the scissors being locked away to deter the middle sized boy from cutting his hair (again) or the tiny threading beads only coming out when the baby is asleep.
All of these things influence the way my children play, and for valid and important reasons, but I also influence their play more directly.
I will sometimes offer a certain set of toys and accessories, or set up a play area that encourages a certain type of play. For example; offering a selection of leaves and natural materials with a bowl of water and some plastic frogs for my frog mad three year old. This directly suggests a subject for his play and provides an initial set of equipment.
I do this for many reasons. I use it as a parenting tool to calm or redirect a child who is struggling. I do it to save my sanity, to engage a child so that I can complete a task or have a few moments peace. I do it because I know my children, I know what they are interested in and I enjoy encouraging them to follow that interest and enjoy a new idea.
I still offer these more directed activities as open ended, meaning that I ‘set the stage’ but I don’t direct the play. The activities are always available for as long or as little time as the child wants and I always base the idea of the activity around something I know my children is really interested in right now, but I at these times I am heavily and purposefully influencing their play, and I am ok with that.
Perhaps there is no ‘need’ to influence a child’s play in this way, but I like to do fun things with my children and this is just one of the fun things we do. This type of adult directed play fits well with my overall philosophy and is about sharing my ideas and knowledge with my children rather than telling them what they should be doing. Done with an understanding of the importance of play and how best to offer it I feel there is a lot to be gained from these type of activities and not much to be lost.
In a perfect world perhaps we should never interfere with our children’s play, perhaps they could create all the opportunities to play on their own without our influence, but my world is far from perfect and my children don’t always have easy and safe access to all the equipment and opportunities that they might if I carefully and lightly stepped in from time to time to share my knowledge expertise and skill. But perhaps I also need to take a step back and think twice when I have my next brilliant idea for a play set up. Is there really a valid reason for me to step in? Is there a better, less direct way that I could help facilitate play? Is this idea really of interest to my child or do I just think it is ‘cool’?
Thanks Cathy, you’ve really got me thinking about what I do and why I do it, which is always a good thing!
Read the comments or scroll down to add your own:
I loved reading this. I have been feeling uneasy with O’s play for a little while, mostly because it is so focused on cars. It’s is own preference but we have certainly encouraged it and perhaps other things have fallen by the wayside that we could have offered. I don’t think kids can be free of influence if nothing else because parents and other adults purchase the toys and control access to many household items. But you can’t make them play with anything they aren’t interested in right?
As exampled by our idle drawing stuff, animal figurines, blocks and so on lol I have been thinking about actually sitting down with him to draw and use playdough and similar activities, which goes one step beyond setting them out and letting them at it.
I think the barometer should be the fun they are having. My kids play lots of intricate make believe games with my dad (that I enjoyed as a child) that I do not have the patience for. I have no doubt this is an enriching way to play. If the kids are spinning their wheels a bit, there is no harm in facilitating something that gets them off and running. Everyone recognises when kids are engaged and enjoying themselves and I think there would be few and far between parents who would interrupt spontaneous imaginative play to redirect them to an adult’s idea of play – most of us are glad to be left well alone!
I think I am going to commit to playing with him with drawing and playdough, and see if we have fun. I won’t worry then that when he has his successful profitable mechanic shop he’ll have to sign off the payroll with an X, because I gave up on picking up discarded crayons and blank paper LOL
I doubt that O’s lack of interest in drawing at the moment is a problem… but you know what he might like…. tape a crayon to a car or two and zoom them around a big piece of paper. Use one love to facilitate another.
I waver about the problem thing … I think about what skills/experiences they are learning for pre-literacy and how beneficial reading with them is, I can’t help but feel like it’s important he gets a writing implement in his hand now and then! A lot of it is probably because A has always been keen and reading and writing has been easy for her. I saw the blog with the tractors and crayons, was cool :) I will actually get off the pc now and draw on the floor (on paper) and see if anyone comes to see what I’m doing :)
I also often feel ‘stilted’ when playing dinosaurs or trains. We have found that bringing out the train toys and leaving them in a space in which they will be noticed is far more helpful than taking a train and playing with them. I’m finding that I enjoy the craft and art activities more so I get involved with them but only doing my own project. I don’t help with theirs. Having said this, I have begun to notice that the boys will watch what I’m doing and then try and copy mine which, in reference to your discussion above, is not encouraging of independent creativity.
This reminds me to be mindful of these things. And thanks for the thought-provoking post.
I long for the day my children just go off and play, how do you gt children like this? I can’t stand the line “mum, watch me do this.” yes. Love I saw you the first 77,000 times.
My eldest could walk into a kindergarten room and sit in the corner looking around saying there is nothing to do.
ah yes! I think it has a lot to do with the temperament of the child too. And I think the reasons why I am not asked to play is a) because I usually say no and b) because I had twins first so there is almost always someone to play with. One of the few benefits to having twins… but I still think the negatives out weight the positives!
Melinda @Eco Toys says
What a fantastic article Kate! Thanks for taking the time to explore these ideas. I agree that there is a place for set up play at times when children need direction but most of the time simply allowing them to just free play is the best kind of play.
I’m going to the Right 2 Childhood conference tomorrow which talks about many issues that parents are confronted with in today’s world, including their child’s right to simply play and be a kid.
Will definitely share this with my readers!
Oh Mel that conference sounds interesting… can’t wait to hear/read your thoughts about it!
Super Sarah says
What a great post, thank you for being honest about your play with your children, I have always been slightly envious of your incredible play ideas and slightly guilty that I really don’t enjoy a lot of play with my girls. Don’t get me wrong, I love hanging out and spending time and playing but in exactly the way you describe, I do my things and they do their things and frequently we cross paths but I don’t often just sit and initiate play.
I’ve always enjoyed your posts on free play and imagination, and this one was particularly interesting to me. I have twin daughters who are in kindergarten (we live in the United States) and they love to play together. They are quite creative, and now that they are in school, ask me to play less and less. At times I feel that I should interact and play with them more, since they are at school so much of the day, but it is also increasingly clear that they don’t always want or need me to play with them. Did you find as your girls hit 5 and beyond that they were happier to just play with each other? There are times that it is fantastic, but also times that I feel guilty. Thank you for this post; I had never really thought about the importance of them having free time at home to play on their own, and it has really helped me.
My girls have always been happy to have each other and not so fussed about me at all. Even when they were very small they weren’t that interested in me playing with them, as long as I was there to get things or fix things…. I’ve always felt lucky in a way (though their single minded connection to each other does pose other issues) that my kids have always had someone else to play with.
Thank you for your honesty regarding play with your child. I agree that we should provide appropriate tools for our children to play with and explore. I have always believed in a semi-structured environment and lots of open play with time to relate to each other and explore their imaginations.
I was wondering if you would be willing to share your views on children and gun/shooting/killing “play”. I am curious to hear your thoughts.
Oh gun play is a very interesting subject…. and one that I’ve thought about a lot over the years and changed my stance on quite a bit. I’ll add that post idea to my calendar!
I will look for your followup via facebook! This is such a difficult topic for me as well. I have such strong feelings, but am continually wondering if I am right or wrong, of just coming from a place of passion.
Brenda Novack says
I was talking my 18 year old Daughter About play one day and she reminded me that when they were little we didn’t have much. they didn’t have all the toys that the their friends had, BUT what they did have was a great imagination. She was telling me about all the games her and her sister would make up on the swing set and how being able to create their own kind of play made them more creative in there life’s. I had a teacher at the school complement me on the type of toys that I provided for my children.
I have ran a daycare for 16 years and I truly believe that giving the kids the props / tools to play with they can evolve there own kind of play. Wright now in my daycare I have boys playing farm and haling turkey poop to to the fields every day. this of course comes from What they see their parents doing as a job, But the role play never ends, Every day they start back were they left off. It is amazing to sit and listen to them.
Thanks for letting me realize that creative and imaginative play can make an impact on a child’s life.
On the weekend, I was painting the bathroom. The boys wanted to paint too, so I set up a table (outside!) with the paint, water, brushes and paper and left them to it! I got to paint in peace and they had fun. An hour or so later I went outside and was amazed to find they had painted about 10 different paintings, and set them up all around the backyard as an art gallery, and even set up a table to collect tickets, and signs saying that no pets are allowed, “only guide dogs”. They had drawn with chalk on pieces of scrap wood to make signs for “entry” and “exit only” with arrows. My ticket cost $10 (pretend), but he let me come back later for free to take photos! After that I was taken upstairs (to the cubby house) to the “Fish World Cafe” where I could read the menu that had been written all over the cubby walls in chalk!
Anyway, long story short – never in a million years would I have come up with these ideas! The boys have never even been to an art gallery (I think he saw it on tv!). But I am thinking of taking him now!!! I was really impressed, and proud of the way they used their imagination, and played well together :) A very happy mummy moment :)
And think of all the things they were learning and skills they were practising while they were busy playing?? Oh I definitely see a fab trip to the art gallery in your future!
Thought provoking post Kate! I think that children need a little guidance and shown how to be creative and use their imagination. My son is 2.5 years old and will occasionally play on his own – cars, trains, little people, doctor, school, etc. But quite often he wants me to play with him because I play silly make believe things that he enjoys. If I ask him to play on his own and walk away he will whine for me to come play and follow me around the house. To be honest, I don’t know how to get to the point you are at.
But I have noticed, that as a result of my silly play with my son, when he does play on his own, he mimicks some of the things that I did during our silly play, some things I say to him during every day life, and he makes up some things on his own. I would like to think that I have guided him on how to be creative/imaginative.
I also wondered if it’s possible that a small part of the reason your kids play so well on their own because they have siblings to play with rather than ask you to play?
I think the fact that my kids have always had someone else to play with (because my first two are twins) is a big factor in them not wanting or needing my interaction as much.
Even now that the big girls are at school and my middle boy is effectively home on his own (the baby is still a bit small to play with mostly) Morgan still happily plays on his own mostly. Though he is the one I often set up play scenes or activities for a) because he is younger and b) because he doesn’t have the others to bounce ideas off. But I think he is so used to me doing my thing and him doing his that he just expects it to be that way because it always has been. Mind you he is the one who loves to help me and is often doing my work along side me, cooking dinner or washing the dishes etc.
This is a fantastic post – with lots to think about! Thanks so much for sharing what you do as I often feel quite guilty that I never play with my kids as I really don’t enjoy it. (Even though I love spending time with them – just not sitting and playing). I have 3 boys (8, 5 & 3) and they are mostly happy playing together or on their own. This year though the middle boy has started full time school so for the first time in his life the youngest is home on his own with me and mostly quite bored as he has always had a playmate. I have started giving him a few ideas to play or starting a game off with him and then leaving him to do my own jobs while he can carry on. It’s a slow process and a bit hit and miss as I’m trying different ideas. If I left it totally up to him he will stand and stare at all the toyboxes and say I want to watch tv! So I’m helping get him started.
I think the ‘last child at home’ must be a difficult adjustment when it comes to playing… I think helping him get started is a perfect way to develop independence in play.
My middle boy is home on his own (well not technically but the baby is still a bit small to play with) while his sisters are at school and he spends a lot of time helping me with my work, or asking me to set him up some activity or other and I’m more than happy to oblige. Once he gets started he’s fine.
So fascinating to me to read this. We had to work hard with Heidi to establish ‘how to play’, Annie modeled much of her play off what she saw on PlaySchool.
I have really loved in the last year watching my girls explore more aspects of play and different play scenarios. Fascinating to me and fun to them.
Ah that is something I didn’t even touch on… the fact that some children need help to learn how to play or need you to model various ways to play. That is definitely a valid reason to set up play scenes and activities based on your girl’s interests.
I bet watching your girls play is like seeing their brains growing and developing right in front of your eyes! I love it when that happens!
I was fascinated to see our Speech Therapist had a massive binder all about teaching play. Different play ideas, worked through step by step, how to set up the play idea, what props/toys you would need, what the purpose behind the play idea was, what was expected of the child and what your end goal with this play idea would be.
Eg – a cardboard box as a boat.
Convince child to try sitting in the box, perhaps sit in the box yourself, adult pretends they are rowing a boat, encourage child to mimic your behaviour. Maybe add a blue cloth to the floor to be the water etc.
So simple yet for children who don’t do object substitution (ie box can be used for purpose other than being a box and carrying things) it is a huge step.
Thanks for this.
At home, I don’t play much with my children either. I do present them with toys, spaces, tools, fabric and am around to support their learning if they need it.
I make my living teaching creative drama to children. We don’t act out stories from books, we act out stories from inside their heads. In this context, I help give structure to their story, ask deep questions that challenge their imaginings and ask them to commit to a role or idea. And, I again offer items to help them realize their story. If they say it is a story about a giant bum that needs to cross a river to get to his spaceship. I will bring in fabric and ask if that can be the river, and does the child want to build the spaceship out of cardboard or mime boxes.
I am playing beside them all the time. Do I think they can act out as powerful a story without me? Absolutely, if the children who have been given the space and time, as you so graciously give your children. Other children need my help, especially the ones who were not given space to explore, and think all good ideas come from tv.
Thanks for the post. – kerri
A psychologist once told me to try to join my kids in play by offering “no questions, no directions” it’s hard to do but amazing to see what happens.
That’s a really interesting idea…. I am not sure I could do that but it would certainly get me thinking about what I am doing and saying and why which is a fabulous start! Thanks for sharing!
Super post Kate. As has been stated in the comments, I think temperament has huge part to play. Three out of my five will instigate and continue to play happily on their own, one needs a few prompts to get going and another sometimes really struggles to get going, but will become absorbed in an activity once he does get going.
I feel exactly the same way Kate. my kids know how to play well by themselves because I don’t direct their play.
Cathy Turner says
I agree it’s good to keep thinking about the things we do with our kids – it’s a continual development being a mum which is what makes it a wonderful occupation, with both the great and the hard times. Thank you for this post which I just found tonight ( I’ve been away, then home to people staying and this week getting back into the term here). Thank you too for very kindly mentioning my blog.
Cathy from thisweekwiththekids