When you reflect on some of your most enjoyable memories of playing as a child, what kinds of experiences come to mind?
For me, these are memories of playing at my grandparents’ homes. One grandmother set aside some of her costume jewelry and old house dresses, along with a few pairs of high heels and hats that I donned and clomped through the house wearing.
My other grandparents’ home did not have a lot of toys or child-centered activities, but I clearly remember spending hours making paper dolls and designing their elaborate paper outfits.
Interestingly, adults do not figure prominently in these memories, although I do have a vague recollection that they were nearby. What makes these experiences so memorable is the sensation that I lost myself in the play for long periods of time.
Environments that encourage spontaneous activity spark creative play, opportunities for social relationships, physical mobility and strength, and problem-solving. But what inspires a great play experience?
Certainly, a great place for a 9-year-old may be different for a toddler. For a child under age 3, a safe place with easily enforced boundaries and adult supervision gives her the freedom to explore and learn about cause-and-effect with the environment: “I can nest all these metal mixing bowls in the bottom cabinet! And then dump all my blocks out of the laundry basket! Wow, that makes a great noise!”
For older preschoolers, a little more room to explore and a higher level of a challenge is necessary to stave off boredom. Play spaces might include building materials and crafts, as well as a few simple props — blocks, small figurines and cars, play household items, dress-up clothes, big cardboard boxes — that give children the opportunity to make up and act out stories.
Research indicates that children who are better at pretend play are often highly skilled at problem solving and figuring out solutions. However, boredom can be an underrated experience. Watching clouds drift by with a 5-year-old and talking about what pictures they form can lead to long conversations or just quiet thoughts.
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There are certain aspects that make play spaces more likely to be used. If an activity is easily cleaned up or put aside, a parent is more likely to encourage that kind of play. For example, limiting play dough to the kitchen counter makes it a more acceptable and spontaneous activity.
Create a spot where ongoing projects are safely out of the way but can be worked on regularly to keep an activity going for days. Having a few clear bins that are organized by type of toy, as opposed to dumping everything in one box, makes cleanup easier and toys more inviting.
When your child is ready, set up a self-serve art area with materials such as paper, markers, safety scissors, tape, stickers, for long stretches of creative activity.
If you, as a parent, feel overwhelmed by the clutter that seems to come along with playtime, keep in mind that sometimes less is more. It’s fine, even desirable, to limit the amount of toys out and available to children at one time. Do some culling, or put many of your child’s toys in a box and rotate them every week.
Your child will play more with what is available. Include a safe place to throw, jump, run and dance (for gross motor activity), along with art materials, books, and imaginative toys and props, for some variety in play options.
And of course, include your child in some daily cleanup rituals so the responsibility becomes part of the routine.
Running out of ideas? There are many books and online resources with ideas for age-appropriate play ideas. Or visit the many play spaces around town designed for young children.
Lisa Phillips is parent educator at the Parenting Center at Children’s Hospital who writes our award-winning Parenting Corner column.