“I could go out in the yard and entertain myself for hours when I was a child! With one stick! With half a stick!” you exclaim. “Yet, my child can’t entertain themselves for five minutes!”
Many parents feel this way and wonder what they are doing wrong, or what they can do to foster more imaginative, independent play. There are several things to think about regarding the child under 7 and play. To me, the child under age 7 is an imitative creature: therefore, it makes perfect sense that a child under 7 is not developmentally ready to go off and initiate play for hours on end.
However, there are several things you can do to help the process.
The first step is to consider that a child needs a play environment as discussed in the previous post, “Fostering Creative Play.” Most of all, think about seriously streamlining the amount of toys available to your child at one time, make sure there are places and spaces for the toys to be placed neatly, and do make sure there are small places where like items can be grouped together for play.
The second step is to provide your child with something worthy to imitate. Your child under the age of 5 is probably not going to follow you around the house peacefully while you “get your work done”, at least at first. Being child-inclusive but not child-centered does not mean that you never play with your child, nor does it mean you never help your child get started with play.
With small children, you may only get fifteen minutes of work done at a time. You may, without any words, then be able to take down something for your child to play with and start the play off and then wander back to your work. I say without any words because the moment you say, “Let’s play with the wooden kitchen now..” they will screech, “Nooooo! I don’t want to play that!” However, if you get engrossed in playing or setting something up without words, they will watch you and start to do what you do. Imitation at its finest.
One thing to consider is that in the decades before families had two cars, most mothers were home all day with their children – they had no car to go anywhere else! There were tasks to be completed around the home and the children were there to see this. Some families carry this tradition on today, and work hard at staying home and providing their children with real work. For example, you could wash on Mondays and let your child help wash toys in the playroom or the linens from his room. He could help fold napkins or washcloths from the laundry or hang things out on a small line to dry. On Tuesdays, if you bake bread , your small child could help you put the ingredients in the bowl, assist with the mixing and the kneading and later with the shaping of the bread (and the eating, of course). Cleaning up the kitchen could also be a part of this day while the bread is rising. If you do handwork on Wednesdays, your child could also have a small basket with scraps of felt or yarn. An older kindergartner could learn to finger knit. Some families garden every day or at least once a week; small children can help plant or pick produce or pull weeds in between their investigations for bugs. Fridays in many families is housekeeping day. On this day, your small child could help polish wooden toys or help you clean. Every family has a rhythm to the week that is unique to them and to their children; the above are just random examples for you to think about. These everyday, mundane kinds of tasks come out in their play. Baking day can turn into the play of cutting out homemade dough shapes to “cook” on a red play silk, for example.
The third step is to carefully and mindfully consider the amount of screen time your small child is viewing. Many parents find that the problem with TV is that there are things that their children are not doing by watching TV. In the book “Alternatives to TV Handbook” by Marie McClendon, she states, “Children now play about 2 hours less a day on average than they did 10 years ago. Yet those who play more have richer vocabularies, better problem-solving skills, more curiosity, higher intelligence, longer attention spans and better abilities to see the perspectives of others.” Regardless of what the content of the TV show is, the images are re-drawn or scanned about 60 times a second. TV-induced alpha brain waves are considered by researchers as a non-learning mode of brain behavior. If your child is showing such behaviors as poor school performance, poor attention span, lack of imaginative play and spontaneous play, aggressively talking back to adults, hitting or pushing other children or frequent nightmares, please consider the amount of media your child is watching.
The fourth step is to consider the amount of time you spend outside every day; this is vitally important in your child’s creative play. If you are outside, nature will provide the backdrop for the child’s indoor play. Whether this is in the simple worms and pillbugs your child delights in, providing food for the birds, picking flowers or produce out of the garden, it will all show up in your child’s play and the songs they make up to sing. I know families with three and four year olds who spend the vast majority of their day outside.
The fifth point to consider the overall rhythm to your day – it should not be just “play all day” for your child. We have discussed involving your child in your work. However, the rhythm to all of this is quite important as there should be times for in-breath and out-breath, times of expansive physical movement and play grounded with time for quietly listening to a story that mother is telling or for rest. An example rhythm for small children under the age of 7 may be a period of playing outside, snack, work focus for the day, lunch, quiet time/down time, storytelling , perhaps something involving art either inspired by the story or some sort of seasonally– based art, snack again, free play or outside play again, dinner preparation and dinner and then a bedtime routine. Every family’s daily rhythm looks different, but if you take the time to meditate on it and think and yes, even plan, you may come up with a wonderful, peaceful day that enhances the quality of life for every member of the family.