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Encourage Play Naturally

By Dana Johnson

Play is a critical factor in all areas of child development – physical, social, emotional and cognitive. However, it is increasingly noted that children today seem to be losing their ability to play. Children want to be entertained and can’t seem to play on their own. And children who do play are acting out scenes they’ve seen on television and in movies, not playing out of their own imaginations.

Many child development specialists, psychologists, teachers and health professionals are speaking out on the subject. Groups such as The Alliance for Childhood and the International Association for the Child’s Right to Play are educating parents and policy makers and advocating on behalf of children’s need to play.

Many books are also addressing the importance of play, creativity and imagination, some even refuting marketing by toy companies that claim their toys are based on brain research -- Einstein Never Used Flash Cards by Dr. Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Endangered Minds: Why Our Children Don’t Think and What We Can Do About It by Jane Healy, Ph.D. are two good examples.

Getting back to play
The research is clear: Children need to play, and play is how they learn best. True play is child-initiated and led, and children are active participants in creating their own play experiences.

Many children today are accustomed to detailed toys that “do” something in an attempt to entertain them or teach them a specific skill. Press a button and it talks, walks or lights up. Besides evidence that some of these toys may in fact be overstimulating, they undermine play itself. Pushing a button and watching it happen is not play. With this type of toy, children are passive participants with a toy that sets the agenda.

Consider the message we are sending our children about play and learning. Do we simply want them to memorize colors, shapes and state capitals? Or do we also value independent thinkers and problem solvers?

In Einstein Never Used Flash Cards, Drs. Golinkoff and Hirsh-Pasek discuss a study showing how play materials that have more than one purpose influenced preschoolers’ ability to solve divergent problems (problems where there is more than one answer). The children who played with such toys were not only more creative problem solvers, but also showed more perseverance and enthusiasm. The children learned to think beyond the objects in what we call “out of the box” thinking.

What can parents do?
Consciously selecting suitable toys can cultivate creative thinking and respects children’s need for actively involved creative play. Simple, open-ended, multi-purpose toys are the key. Toys that are not completely detailed allow children to use their imaginations. Those that allow children to decide how to play with it encourage creativity.

Toys that can be turned into many things facilitate abstract thinking. For example, blocks made of tree branches can be used to create unique structures not possible with traditional blocks. Cloths and silks can be turned into capes, aprons and rivers. Acorns can be used as pretend food or money. Dolls with simple features allow the child to decide if the baby is laughing, crying or sleeping.

I often ask parents to think back for a moment to their childhood. What was your favorite thing to play? What did you like to pretend play for hours on end? Almost without exception, we discover that our favorite play scenarios were those we created out of our own imaginations. We were mommies feeding our babies, superheroes with a towel-turned-cape, explorers of our backyards and neighborhood creeks. Trust these instincts and offer your child endless possibilities for natural creative play.

© Dana Johnson.

Dana Johnson is a former children's play therapist and holds a master's degree in social work. She is the owner of Three Sisters Toys, specializing in natural play materials for children.

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"The media have become the mainstream culture in children's lives. Parents have become the alternative. Americans once expected parents to raise their children in accordance with the dominant cultural messages. Today they are expected to raise their children in opposition to it."
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