The Power of Play

The following is an excerpted article from the American Specialty Toy Retailers Association (ASTRA) website , reprinted here by permission, for which we are grateful. By Susan Magsamen at Curiosity Kits.

Along with nourishment, shelter, clothing and education, parents want to provide children with basic play. Whether it's a family checkers tournament or an afternoon spent examining anthills in the backyard, play is an integral part of a happy, healthy childhood. Playtime helps children escape the pressure of busy, scheduled lives. It helps them connect with parents and siblings. From make-believe to building blocks, play can provide important emotional and intellectual stimulation. From social skills to an appreciation for nature, it offers lasting learning experiences. And while play is all about fun and freedom, it can also require careful planning on the part of busy families.

Family Play

“I like to play base runners with my friends,” says seven-year-old John, “but it's more fun with Dad. He knows all the rules and I can catch the ball better when he throws it to me.” When children spend relaxed time with grownups they love, they in turn feel loved and respected. It's great exercise for the “work” of being human. Children can practice listening, taking turns, and learning new skills when adults make time to play with them. However, action-packed schedules leave families little time to share together. In The Read-Aloud Handbook (Penguin Books, 1995), author Jim Trelease cites a study conducted in the homes of school-aged children. The time parents actually spend reading to or playing with their children ranges from 5.6 minutes to 12.2 minutes each day. In a recent issue of Family Life, writer Michele Herman reports that in an effort to provide “a rich and challenging life for their children [families face] two potential casualties: quiet playtime and time with parents” (How To Let Kids Be Kids, September 1997).

According to author William J. Doherty (The International Family, Addison-Wesley, 1997), it's critical for time-stretched families to develop rituals that make “togetherness time” an essential part of a family's life. Unless parents are intentional about their efforts, time for play may be considered expendable.

Family playtime can also be valuable for adults. “It's like exercise,” says a San Diego mother of three. “It's hard to make it a habit, pulling out a jigsaw puzzle or a deck of cards after dinner. But now that we've made it part of our evening routine, I look forward to it, too.” Often parents begin to shift their perspectives about what they really find relaxing. Joining in as children laugh, play is an natural antidote for the everyday stress in the lives of hurried, preoccupied adults.

Alone But Not Lonely

While parental involvement is key to great playtime experiences, parents shouldn't feel a need to join in every aspect of their child's play. In fact, active time spent alone or with peers is an equally important part of a child's development.

The possibilities for independent play are limitless: playing dress-up with a neighbor, inventing a secret code and sending messages to a friends, watching clouds for familiar shapes or for signs of changing weather. Adults often recall the low-tech imaginative play of their own childhoods with a kind of wistfulness, as if it's impossible for their own children to enjoy birdwatching, making clothes for dolls, or planning backyard variety shows with their friends. Children don't lack interest or ability. More likely, they simply don't have the time and encouragement to play in ways that might require a bit of planning, practice and flights of imagination.

According to most educators and psychologists, independent or free play happens when adults make time for kids to explore, create, experiment and imagine on their own. “Sometimes it's better for parents to stand back and observe,” says John Mitchell, editor of the journal, Sanctuary. “Children building a fort can be having a great time on their own. When an adult comes out to improve it, it can take away the fun.” Children feel empowered when they make decisions and rely on their own skills, resources and abilities. Parents can encourage free play by setting the stage. “It's important that the parent is available,” says William J. Doherty. ”Adults can help by setting up a situation, making space available, helping a child choose materials for a project. But being available is key.“ Independent activity can provide a child with a variety of interests, a sense of well-being and fun.

With just a few minutes of each day or evening, families can use the magic of play to make their lives more rewarding and fun. Adults and children alike are to fill spare minutes and hours with their agile hands, their curious minds, their wish-filled hearts.

To encourage family play

Adults should buy toys that appeal to their own interests. Kids love to see adults genuinely engrossed in playful activity, and parents may be more likely to join in with enthusiasm. They should also think about the activities that interested them as children. Many classic toys and games are still available and can bring back memories that are fun for families to share.

Some hints help make playtime a family ritual are:

  • While one child helps to prepare dinner, another sets up a board game to be ready to play after dinner.
  • Leave a deck of cards on the kitchen table and set a goal of mastering a new game each week.
  • Invite family members to take turns practicing stitching skills with a prepackaged needlework kit, then give as holiday gifts for neighbors.

To encourage independent play: Toys as Tools

Remember that self-reliance takes practice. Choose activities that ensure a successful, satisfying experience for children before moving on to more challenging games and projects.

  • Carefully chosen toys can open doors to a child's resourcefulness, self-reliance, and imagination.
  • While children want and need to play alone, they still want and need adult supervision, attention, and admiration. At its best, independent play is still a family activity.