More About Fostering Creative Play

“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.

Many blessings,


Top 10 Must Have Tools for Gentle Discipline

So, we arrive at the point where we must think about the gentle discipline tools we have in our toolbox to replace physical punishment, yelling, nagging.  This post is especially applicable to those families with small children under the age of 7, although many of these techniques will work with school-aged children as well.   A brief note before we get to our Top 10, though.

Barbara Patterson and Pamela Bradley say in their book, “Beyond the Rainbow Bridge – Nurturing Our Children from Birth to Seven” this:

“In The Kingdom of Childhood, Rudolf Steiner says that the child in the first seven years is really an eye. If someone has fits of temper and becomes furiously angry either with the child or in the presence of the child, the child will have the picture of this outburst throughout his entire being.   ….Everything we do in the presence of the child goes in deeply.  Scolding, threats, and yelling do not help in disciplining young children.  This approach may actually weaken their ability to deal with situations later in life.”

So the first thing to remember is that we always guide the under-7 child with the principle of imitation.

Imitation Rahima Baldwin Dancy says this in her book, “You Are Your Child’s First Teacher”:  “If you want to teach a certain behavior to your child, one of the best ways is to actually do it in front of (or with) him.  This demands that we as adults get up and actually do something, rather than giving the child orders or directions.”

This idea of imitation is so important, it doesn’t even get a number!  It is the basis for so many things in life with a small child.  A small child will imitate in their play the exact way you do things down to how you throw a cleaning rag in the sink, how you roll your eyes when you are upset, and everything and anything else.  So, when you see a behavior, look first to yourself

So, without much further ado, let’s look at some other tools you can pull out in the moment:

1. Humor – Lots of parents take parenting very seriously.  But please don’t take every word that comes out of your small child ‘s mouth so seriously and feel whatever they say is in deep need of serious explanation and weight. 

Here is an example of a “loaded statement” a child may make.  I had a friend recently ask me about her three-year-old saying “I hate you!” when the child was upset.  Fun?  No, but I would give it about as much weight as a three-year-old telling me they can ride their tricycle over hills in the Land of the Giants.  A three-year-old simply does not understand the depth and weight of that statement, and to imply that the child does is not in accordance with their developmental stage or maturity level.  They are mad; but don’t digress from the original situation and get sidetracked!

I think for children of all ages, a better tact to try sometimes, particularly with children under the age of 12, is humor.  I have a wonderful friend whose parenting I really admire, and humor is her number one tool.  I so enjoy watching it at work.  One day her daughter was in the backseat of their car with some other children,  just playing,  when suddenly she looked  like she lost her balance and sort of fell into the corner of a book.  She was holding her eye and getting upset.  There was no blood, no visible bruising, the eye was not teary or red…….

Daughter:  “Mom, someone hit my eye with their foot!”

Mom:  “I thought it looked like you fell a little into that book.”

Daughter:  “No, no, it was a foot!  It was someone’s foot!” (wailing, gnashing of teeth)

Mom:”Hmmm…..Oh well, in that case – Was it a stinky foot?  Does your eye smell?”

(Little brother is now giggling).  Daughter, still teary:  “I don’t know if it was stinky or not. I didn’t get a chance to smell it.”  (Little brother and adults now laughing).

Mom, grabbing daughter for a hug:  “A stinky foot might cause a stinky eye, let’s see!  Um, yup, definitely stinky!”

This could have gone another way – complete escalation as all the adults were certain it was a book corner in the eye, the daughter was sure it was a foot in the eye (like it matters, still hurts!),  it could have deteriorated into reasoning (well, it couldn’t have been a foot as no one was near you at the time), or just being overly serious and pulling out ice packs and lots of concern (remember, there was no blood, or redness) or it could have turned into a small Treatise On The Danger Of Playing in Close Quarters with Others.

Think about humor, think about not taking it all quite so seriously.  There are many situations where humor can save the day.  Humor helps de-escalate things and also models for your child a positive way to look at the sunny side of things and a way to deal with a stressful or frustrating situation.

Many parents say, Save your big reactions for the big things in life! I agree, but in order to do this, you must know what is BIG in your family and to you.  Think about the developmental stages and what fits where and decide what is BIG….Go back and re-read the post on “Big Tools for the Big Picture of Positive Discipline.”

2.  Distraction – this is a viable tool for all children under 7, and even children that are 7 or 8  can still be fairly distractible.  However, this takes creativity in the heat of the moment to think of an appropriate distraction.  Distraction is not a bribe; it is a way to change to scene to your advantage.

Distraction can also show itself by changing the environment.  Some children just need to be outside when they are upset!

3.  Hugs and kisses and being held – solves lots of things without a lot of words. Sometimes you do not need to say much of anything to your child; just holding them lets them know you are there for them.

4. Pictorial imagery –  This is a Waldorf tool that is very useful with small children.  Instead of pulling children into their heads and into a thought-decision kind of process, try using phrases that paint a picture instead.  This can be anything from “Turn that siren down!” for a noisy little one or “Hop like a bunny over here for some food.”  You are re-directing behavior into something more positive through the images that arise from these types of phrases.  For those interested in more about pictorial imagery, please do see Donna Simmons’ bookstore and look under her audio downloads for her CD entitled, “Talking Pictorially” at 

5. Use of the word “may”  – as in, “Little Johnny, you may bring your plate to the counter for me.  Thank you!”  Be sincere, and this word works well as you set the tone for your own home.

6. Limited choices, less words or no words at all – Sometimes just a look suffices more than a hundred words.  Try just helping your child get into their coat while you sing a song that you usually sing when you go outside.  Try just handing your child their toothbrush after their bath instead of a whole book about the necessity of dental hygiene.  This idea leads to…

7.  Time-in.  According to Alfie Kohn, author of Unconditional Parenting,

“Sometimes parents are advised to use a time-out instead of spanking their kids – as though these were the only two options available. The reality, as we’ve seen, is that both of these tactics are punitive. They differ only with respect to whether children will be made to suffer by physical or emotional means. If we were forced to choose one over the other, then, sure time-outs are preferable to spankings. For that matter, spanking kids is preferable to shooting them, but that’s not much of an argument for spanking.”  -Alfie Kohn, Unconditional Parenting, page 65-66.

“Time-out is actually an abbreviation for time out from positive reinforcement. The practice was developed almost half a century ago as a way of training laboratory animals….When you send a child away, what’s really being switched off or withdrawn is your presence, your attention, your love. You may not have thought of it that way.” -Alfie Kohn, Unconditional Parenting, page 26-27.

So, consider the value of time-in instead.  Some families have a place where adults and children can sit together until they all calm down, some mothers just have their child sit near them while they do some sort of rhythmical work.

8.  Ignoring –yup, you heard me right.  The Gesell Institute books routinely recommend turning a blind eye to some of your child’s behaviors if it is not hurting others or themselves (or just driving you plain crazy!).  There are times to draw a line in the sand, but if you nit-pick every behavior, you are on the verge of demanding, and not commanding as an Authentic Leader.

9.  Physical follow-through – If you say something to a small child, you should expect to have to physically  help them follow through.  You should expect to have to physically hold an upset child if they need it.  The physicality of life with a small child is always there – hugs, kisses, a lap to sit on and help to do things as needed.  The child’s respect and dignity always needs to be respected, so you need to be calm when you are following through, but please remember a young child under 7 is probably not going to function well on verbal directives alone.

Rahima Baldwin Dancy states in her book, “You Are Your Child’s First Teacher”:  “It isn’t until elementary-school age that a child is ready to respond consistently to authority that is expressed only through the spoken word without being accompanied by actions. With the preschool age child, you need to correct and demonstrate again and again, but you can’t expect children to remember it.  Their memories simply aren’t that mature yet.”

10.  FREEZE!  One of the best tools in parenting is learning to take that quick pause in your mind’s eye and ask yourself if what you are about to do is going to help your child be the adult they were meant to be; is it going to escalate or de-escalate the situation, is it going to teach your child something or is it just a moment of anger for you that will pass?

This series of posts about being an Authentic Leader has been great fun for me to write.  I would love to hear from all of you what situations you could use help with in being an Authentic Leader in your own home; please leave it in the comment section and I would love to address it in a future blog posting!

Just a few thoughts from my little corner of the world.