The Power of Play

A few months ago, I did a presentation after toddler story time at the library about the importance of play. I had just read “The Power of Play” by David Elkind, and I used some parts of the book in my presentation. It is really important to me that my kids have sufficient time to play. I do not love that Sofia is in full day kindergarten, but that was the option for Spanish/English dual immersion (which we do love). Many days when she gets home, she goes straight to the playroom, shuts the door, and plays by herself. I can tell that she really needs that downtime after a long day at school.

I really need to be better about getting my kids outside to play in the winter. During the other seasons, I am pretty good, but something about the gray skies/rain, just makes me want to stay inside my warm house. I am going to work on that this week.. rain or shine!

Here is part of the hand out that I gave out during my presentation. I did not give this presentation claiming to be a perfect parent in this department, but this is a topic that I fell pretty passionately about. Your thoughts? What do your kids love to play at home? How do you make sure that they have enough time for play? What do you consider to be enough time?

“Play is not a luxury but rather a crucial dynamic of healthy physical, intellectual, and social-emotional development at all age levels.”
David Elkind, Ph.D.
The Power of Play

What gets in the way of a toddler’s most important work?

  • Too much on the calendar. We live in a wonderful community where there are many fun and enriching activities for young children and their families. It is easy to fill our children’s schedules up with so many activities that we get in the way of their most important job: play.
  • Media and Technology. The AAP recommends that children under 2 have no screen time. For more current information from the AAP website, check out: TV can take away time that a young child has to play. Let’s teach our little ones that they can be the creators of their own entertainment instead of always being entertained.
  • Too many toys- “My preschool granddaughter doesn’t really value her toys because she has so many of them. Seemingly overwhelmed by the multitude of her playthings, she sometimes goes from toy to toy without spending time on any one of them. She appears to look to toys for amusement and distraction, not imaginative inspiration.” -David Elkind , Ph.D. (The Power of Play).
  • Houses that aren’t child friendly-Because toddlers often don’t understand their limits and boundaries, it is important that they receive constant supervision, but it can help relieve stress and make for a happier parent and child when a home is safe and child friendly.
  • Parents with agendas-It is great for parents to be playful with their children and help think of fun games to play and activities to engage in with their child,  but child-centered play where the adult is following a child’s lead is also very important. Parents can tire of toddler style play of constant repetition, but toddlers learn skill mastery from constant repetition. Don’t we all wish that we had the determination of an older infant learning how to walk?

What you can do TODAY to help encourage play

  • Get outside! Jump in a pile of leaves,and while you are at it, collect some to make a paper plate wreathe. Oh, and while we are on this leaf kick,  have your toddler help you string some leaves to hang for decor in your house. Also, when you are outside, spend time jumping on leaves and talking about the sounds that they make. The sky is the limit with what you can do with leaves.
  • The next time that you receive a big box in the mail (or go to an appliance store to see if they have any extras), help your child turn it into a fort/car/boat… or whatever they decide would be fun!
  • Mix some mud with a little water to create paint. It cleans up easily, it’s free, and non-toxic :). Spread out butcher paper on your table and let your toddler experience and create!
  • Give toddlers opportunities to “help” around the house! Give them a large paint brush and let them pretend that they are painting the walls with a bowl of water to dip it in,  or you can give them a wet sponge and let them wash the walls. During dinner, give them a mixing bowl and spoon filled with cereal or another snack that they can stir (and eat). I am often surprised that I am actually able to get more done around the house when my kids are entertained “helping” me. It can be a win-win situation.
  • Make a simple play dough recipe ( Get out cookie cutters and a rolling pin from the kitchen. Have age appropriate art supplies on hand for child so that they can do art projects often.
  • Have an inviting and comfortable area of your house where your child can explore books! Little imaginations come alive while looking at pictures or being read to.
  • Work on making your house child friendly so your child can safely explore. With a 10 month old, this meant putting a wooden gate around our gas stove so that she is free to crawl around this winter without worry of her being burned.
  • Prioritize what structured activities you do. It is fun to sign your kids up for activities, and it is fun to have playtime with peers, but it is important that there is still adequate time for toddlers to have unstructured play time.
  • Spend time observing your child caught up in play sometime without interrupting. It’s important that parents be playful with their toddlers, but it is also beneficial for them to play by themselves sometimes.  I promise that it will put a smile on your face seeing how clever and imaginative your child can be.
  • Try to follow your toddler’s lead more when playing. That may mean picking up acorns for 10 minutes or chasing bugs at the park for 20 minutes. It can test patience going at a toddler pace sometime, but it forces us to slow down and sometimes literally smell the roses :).
  • Sometimes parents are in a hurry and need to get somewhere, but when possible, allow extra time to get places so that you can go at toddler pace when possible. This may mean scheduling 10 extra minutes to walk 50 feet :).
  • Toddlers love to imitate mom, dad, siblings, and other loved ones. In the winter, put all of your family’s winter hats, scarves, and gloves in a pile on the floor. Toddlers love to practice putting clothes on (and you may be surprised how many hats he/she may fit on her head)!
  • Toddlers love touching and exploring different textures. Fill a few baskets with different shaped/colored mini gourds and pumpkins. Watch your child fill and empty the baskets, and if they are in the mood, maybe you can help them separate them according to size, shape, or color… or wait and see what your toddler has in mind. Maybe a gourd will become a telephone.
  • As children get older, bath time can be playtime.  Throw some utensils in the tub for them to make dirt soup with or to use as paddles in their “boat”.
  • The rule “Don’t play with your food” doesn’t apply as much to babies and young toddlers. They are learning about food not only by eating it, but by touching it, playing with it, and yes, often times tossing it off of the sides of their trays. As toddlers get older, meal time will gradually get less messy, but the good thing is that even though they may make a mess, they love to help clean it up :)!
  • Turn some music and on, get some instruments out (pots and pans work as well) and let your little one rock out  beside you while you make dinner.
  • Play is for everyone. Be a good example to your child of being playful, it it will strengthen your bond.

I could go on and on with ideas of how to make play a pleasure, and I’m sure you all could add many more ideas to the list. While it can be intensely exhausting losing sleep and spending all day chasing a young child around, the joy can be just as intense. Our toddlers teach us to enjoy the simple everyday moments of life and to live in the moment. Enjoy playing with your toddler!



Elisa - January 9, 2012 - 6:56 am

Kara, I couldn’t agree with you more. Last night Sebastian and Alessandra were in the bathtub playing with their Lego creations. I was happy to here their imaginative minds at work and also that Sebastian is Alessandra’s role-model…as he is extremely creative. Despite the fact that they are 5 years apart…they still play together!!!!

Josh - January 10, 2012 - 10:30 pm

This is the reason we chose the preschool Jaycee is attending. The director believes in learning through play as the primary vehicle of early childhood education. Within a few weeks the director emailed us pictures of Jaycee in class. She had taken it upon herself to play with a few items of different colors. The picture we got was Jaycee making ABAB and AABB patterns on her own. It is easy to get lost in the “your child should know X, Y & Z by this age” that the bigger picture is missed. They WANT to learn and don’t need hyper structure to do it. Good post!

adrienne w - January 14, 2012 - 12:34 pm

I’ve been paying closer attention to my kids’ play after reading this. The tub is a great place for all of them to play (though obviously not together, because our tub is not that big). I find that Thatcher is drawn to simple building toys and vehicle toys. Also, all my kids love to play with any kind of animal toy, often their stuffed ones, but most of the time, they just pretend to be animals themselves, without any toys. I’m lucky that my kids don’t veg in front of the TV (even when I want them to ;) ). We’re also very lucky that Macartney and Thatcher attend an arts school that is very focussed on creativity and play, so I don’t feel that they are deprived of that at school. I remember going to a conference on the power of play back when I was in College. Loved it. So fascinating and has helped me a lot as a parent now. You offer lots of good things to keep in mind! You are awesome!