A few years ago, I was searching for childcare for my children. I wanted to find a place where they would be loved, safe, and have fun with other kids… and that was about it. To my surprise and disappointment, I found myself often hearing the opposite from teachers, professionals, and even other parents. The emphasis on academic curriculum was always touted with the intent of setting my mind at ease. “We don’t just play all day!” Yet that was exactly what I wanted to find for my young children. At three years old, I hoped they would play all day!
My background is in education, and at the time I was searching for childcare, I was working with college students. While I love learning and my greatest hope for my children is that they will too, I knew that their early learning experiences shouldn’t look anything like those of the students I saw each day. For children, the conditions in which they look best often look like “just” playtime. If they are playing, they are learning.
The distinction I kept seeing between play and learning left me frustrated, discouraged and very sad. Play is a wonderful opportunity for children to learn and grow, and it is much more valuable than “just” play.
There really is no “just” play. Play is how children learn.
In light of the often negative view of play, and the many demands on children’s time that limit their opportunities to truly play, I’m increasingly thankful for advocates who speak out about the importance of play in childhood. The Genius of Play is a website that aims to “provide families with the information and inspiration they need to make play an important part of their child’s day.”
I’m a firm believer in the necessity of play for children, and I’ve been thrilled to find such a useful and informative website dedicated to promoting and valuing children’s play. As a busy parent, I love to find so many different ideas for play, especially when most of the ideas don’t require extensive preparation. Many of the ideas offered at The Genius of Play don’t require more than paper, markers, crayons, or a willingness to be playful.
Parents can also search for play ideas by age range or specific skills. I know in my family, it’s easy for us to get in a rut — my son leans towards Legos, my daughter is often found in the mud, and meanwhile, I’m wishing my kids would join me in creating some soap opera quality storylines for the Barbies. Having a catalog of play ideas and new games to play can help keep me engaged and find new ideas for ways to play together as a family.
It feels like my kids’ need and time to play is threatened in ways mine never was as a child. With this in mind, I am trying to be deliberate in protecting my children’s need to play.
I’ve made some deliberate and maybe unusual choices for my family in order to promote and protect my children’s play. They help ensure that my kids have ample time to play, and help keep me focused on the importance of playtime.
First and foremost, I learn about play. If love languages are a real thing, mine is probably researching! When something interests me, my tendency is to read and learn everything I can about it. For me, an important way to value my kids’ need to play has been to learn about it. Reading about the benefits and purpose of play helps me be better able to support my children and their need for playtime. I can better see the value in their play, and it gives me the confidence and determination I need to be deliberate in protecting their time.
I try to respect their playtime. Sometimes allowing space for their play means being flexible enough to change my plans when possible, in order to allow an extra ten or twenty minutes when they are deeply entrenched in a game of pretend. Now that they’ve started school, it means we don’t do much if anything outside of school hours, and nothing on school nights. That time is theirs to unwind and play and be kids, and it’s an “appointment” I’m not willing to cancel.
I play with them. Not as much as I should, and certainly not as much as they would like! But as an adult, I spend most of my time with my children expecting them to join me in my world — running errands, grocery shopping, doing things that have to be done. Playing with my children — as tedious as it seems at times — allows me the chance to step into their world. I can get a glimpse into their thoughts and feelings. As their mom, I want them to continue to invite me into their world as they grow older, and taking the time to play with them now helps to strengthen our connection and make that a habit.
I communicate to them that their play is important. When my son is creating a Lego spaceship, he is hard at work and deeply involved in his creation. Comments such as, “You’re really busy with your tower” or “you’re working so hard” help to communicate to my kids the importance and value of their play. Creating space in our house for their toys, creations, and games also communicates that their world and their play is important in our home.
The world in which my children are growing up often seems much busier and more stressful than the one in which I grew up.
More expectations are placed on children at increasingly younger ages, but the way children learn has not changed: Children learn best through play, and play is learning. Children at play are laying the foundation for their future. Their playtime is worth respecting and needs protecting. As parents, we have the opportunity to advocate for and create space for our kids’ important work of playing. Fortunately, we don’t have to do it alone. So many experts are speaking out on the importance and benefits of play, and The Genius of Play has so many helpful resources for parents like me as we learn and play along with our children.