As promised, here are a few more thoughts regarding how to help young children play.
The number one thing is to know that in order to help your child to play, you need to understand the stages of play development. Realistic expectations are very important!
From Ages Newborn to Two and a Half: Not many toys are needed. A special doll, (arms and legs are not necessary), wooden spoons, pots and bowls are all lovely, along with baskets to fill and dump.
Barbara Patterson and Pamela Bradley write in “Beyond the Rainbow Bridge: Nurturing Our Children from Birth to Seven”: “We may not be able to complete our tasks with a child around, but HOW we do our work is more important than what we accomplish. If we are only able to do fifteen minutes of concentrated work when a child is present, it will be fifteen minutes well spent.”
Notice there is NOT talk of sacrificing time with your child to do work, but that the work enlivens the life and energy of the child and the household.
Two and a Half to Five Years: The first bit of fantasy play emerges around the age of three – so if you are expecting your two-year-old child to just take off and play a game they make up, this may be unrealistic. Likewise, if you have a four and a half year old who cannot create any kind of games with toys, then you may need to help them catch up where they should be with play.
So, around three years of age comes “let’s pretend”. Reality and fantasy are the same and are not separated. This is the stage where open ended toys are so important, because the play can shift dramatically from minute to minute and the toys need to keep up! Baskets of silks, crystals, pinecones and such are all great things for this age group to create with.
Children of this age generally do NOT share toys well.
Five to Seven Years: Children are very involved in the creation of the game (which really is the whole game, not so much the end product). For example, if children of this age are playing restaurant, the play may be all about deciding a menu, “writing” a menu, gathering things, setting up tables, and the “real” restaurant part where people sit down and order and someone plays the waiter may not happen.
Children of this age enjoy dolls with arms and legs and clothes to dress and undress. Simple arts and crafts are wonderful as well. The six-year-old who is going through the six-year-old transformation and is restless and “bored” may not need more play, but instead practical work until they are ready to play again.
The notion of practical work brings up an important point. As always, start with yourself and what you are modeling for your child to imitate in their play. This is one reason Waldorf in the Early Years has a great focus on practical work with the hands so your child can see that! Gardening, knitting, baking, cooking, canning, music, cleaning things by hand, hanging laundry out to dry are all good places to start.
As mentioned, children need less toys than you think, but open ended toys are good. People get very caught up in buying the silks and expensive wooden toys, but really homemade toys are the best. There are a number of books regarding toymaking with children, one of my favorites is “Toymaking with Children” by Fraye Jaffke as seen here: http://www.amazon.com/Toymaking-Children-Freya-Jaffke/dp/0863153674/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1251158698&sr=1-1. This would be a great book to get to make your children some gifts for the holidays! You can start now and make some fabulous things! There are also examples throughout this book showing playspaces that are set up with silks and open-ended toys so you can see how to do this yourself at home!
Create your playspaces close to where you spend your time – if you are in the kitchen, have a playroom near the kitchen or take a corner of your kitchen and have a play corner there.
Involve your children in your work – your real work where they can contribute and feel as if they played a vital role. Use singing, warmth, stories to draw your child in rather than commands to “help” which usually causes the child to run the other way!
If you are working and child has “nothing to do” or needs your assistance to start playing again, you can provide them an opportunity to help you, you can essentially become “the old woman who stirs the soup while the train is coming to town” and provide a framework for play without being completely enmeshed and immersed in the play, or you can stop your own work for a few minutes and help solve the play problem by doing whatever the child is requesting you to do.
In these ways we are close to our children, we exude warmth and love for our children and welcome them with open arms for help with play. We don’t push them away because we have our own work, but strive to include the child as we can and help the child in their important work, the development of play!