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,


8 thoughts on “More About Fostering Creative Play

  1. I am really enjoying your blog!!

    Do you know of any tips to help a child become more accepting of the daily rhythm/routine? Even when we do things the same way every day (rest time after lunch, using the bathroom before leaving the house), I often encounter resistance… even though it is a normal part of our routine.

    I like the idea of more outside time! And trying to stay home more is a great idea too… I have to battle the “cabin-fever” feeling with that, though.

    Also, any suggestions for an extroverted child (well, at least she is with me!) who wants to be engaged constantly? She has a hard time playing alone, and she actually prefers adults playing with her over other kids. I try to involve her in my work around the house, but lately she loses interest quickly and then begins annoying the baby or engaging in other purposeless activities.

    I have no memories of my mother playing with me – not in an imaginative play situation, anyway. I do have wonderful memories of hours of making my own play alone or with my brothers, coming up with all kinds of scenarios with very few toys. I want that for my children… maybe time will help too, as they are only 3 years and 9 months old.

  2. Hi Erin,
    Thanks for reading. I started to write a reply to you regarding when children resist the rhythm so to speak, but it got rather long, so look for a blog post coming soon on that topic!

    As far as your child having a hard time playing alone, I would say with a three year old you would be starting to work in small increments. Try to think ahead to set up scenes for her to play with, and also to rotate those toys so different things come out on different days. A three year old is in the height of imitation so you may very well have to to show her how to play by getting down and playing and then going back to your work.

    When you are working and then she wanders off to engage in something else, you may have to stop your work and show her how to play with something or set something up for her. If you have an idea in your head that on Tuesdays while you are baking it will also be homemade playdough day and have lots of ways to model with that playdough it probably will be a more successful play experience than just trying to hope she will pick a toy off the shelf after she is done kneading. Setting up little play scenarios that are different each day will also help spark things. The other thought is can you keep drawing her back in to your own work. For example, with bread making; first it is time to pour the ingredients in a bowl, then it is time to mix, oh look, now it is time to knead and here is your little piece to knead and now it is time to wipe down the counters, etc. In other words, when you think the daily work out, think about all the components and where she may fit into it.

    Finally, outside time is key to really settling down to play. Many families are out for at least an hour or more in the morning and then again in the afternoon. It is an investment in time, but children seem to naturally sense that outside time as an outbreath and then settle down to play when they come back inside. Perhaps this is something to experiment with for your little one.
    Hope that helps a little and please do watch for some blog posts about these topics! Thanks again!

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