In the last few years, there has been an ongoing explosion of new toys on the marketplace and growing development conversation among parents and educators. New ways to entertain, to teach, to make the latest technology accessible to children can all combine to make a hard time of answering questions like ‘What is really developmentally appropriate for my child?’ and ‘How much is too much?’.
Many parents are looking for better ways to guide the playthings their children are interacting with, the parameters of new activities, and the specific ‘flavor’ of their children’s playtime. Here are some guidelines, routines, and ideas that you may want to bring into your own home to help make healthy play, and important family-time, a daily part of life that will be a favorite for your children and yourself.
What and When?
The concept of ‘play’ itself strikes most as a very simple idea. However, what defines ‘healthy’ play, or ‘true’ play, vs. many of the passive entertainment activities that children fall into, like television and video games? Most researchers agree that ‘real’ play (that fully engages the child’s brain and helps them to develop important physical and mental skills) must meet all of these five specifications:
* Play must be pleasurable and enjoyable.
* Play must be spontaneous and voluntary.
* A play activity contains an aspect of make-believe.
* The player must be actively engaged in play.
* Play must have no extrinsic goals.
Academically oriented skill-builders and tools have a great deal of importance in the life of a child, but should be considered part of home-school curriculum, reinforcement of something an older child is learning in school, or as a tool for a child to explore an interest. ‘Learning toys’ that are specific to an academic subject can be extremely valuable in helping the child enjoy their study-time and remember the things they are learning, but should never supplant more traditional, open-ended playthings that a child might wish to employ during their own ‘free-play’ activities.
A young child begins to learn to read by playing with blocks and exploring shapes. He learns to communicate well through role-play. Activities like these will have a much greater life-expectancy in the interest of your child, as they are able to ‘grow’ with the child developmentally. A child can also be unassisted in his explorations. In addition to the bonding time provided by social play with peers and parents, some of the greatest developments a preschool-aged child makes can be during solitary playtime.
Building Good Habits
Many parents become frustrated about the level of clutter in their homes, the amount of toys their children leave unused, or toys that get broken in careless handling. A great way to help curb these habits is to rotate your children’s toys. If they begin to neglect or become disinterested in an item or activity, put it away for a few days or weeks. When the toys come out again, they can take on a new ‘freshness’. Also, having fewer toys in your child’s play area can help them focus. Keeping what you do have out on low, uncluttered shelving in the space will help them learn the places for everything, encouraging them to put their things away themselves when they’re finished.
Setting up small routines or traditions on a daily or weekly basis can be a great way to put these concepts to work in your home. Designate some ‘quiet time’ for your child to play by herself before supper. At the end of the day, you might work the setup of a special scene or activity into a nightly cleanup, so that your child has something started to play out the next day.