Q: [All Ages] “Between sports and music lessons, we are a busy family. Should I be encouraging more unscheduled playtime?”
A: “Play is the work of the child,” said famed educator Maria Montessori more than 100 years ago.
Her words are as true now as ever — and maybe have even more significance within today’s modern world.
Not only is play something that comes naturally to children, it is essential to healthy brain development. Play allows children to express their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive and emotional strength. It helps them make decisions and work through conflict while building confidence. Playing is such an important part of childhood development that the United Nations has recognized play as a right of every child.
Yet, in our complex society, and in the face of too many structured activities, loss of outdoor areas, excessive screen time and increased academic pressure, this time-tested tradition is fading.
Experts say children need open-ended, unscheduled times to explore and discover. They need time to pretend and to role-play. In contrast to passive entertainment such as iPads and TV shows, play builds active, healthy bodies. It allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts and to learn self-advocacy skills.
Here are some simple activities for parents and caregivers to promote this essential element of childhood while building their child’s social and emotional skills:
- Free up time in children’s schedules.
- Set up a prop box with items for pretend play — i.e. clothes for dress-up; old forms and stamps to play post office. Let your children’s creativity take it from there.
- Provide dolls and puppets or make them out of paper or socks. Through imaginative play, children easily ascribe feelings and ideas to these “people” and “animals,” and often use them to express, explore and work out their own ideas, thoughts and feelings.
- Head outside, roll out a blanket and lie with your backs to each other. You can even do this activity with an infant; your baby will enjoy feeling the breeze, experiencing the new environment and being close to you. Spark your child’s curiosity by asking, “What animal does that cloud look like?”
- Play hide and seek.
- Put on some lively music and dance together.
- Make a pretend house/tent out of sheets.
- Have an indoor picnic or a friendly pillow fight.
- Go out for an evening walk with a flashlight.
Remember that play is not just for toddlers and school-age children. Babies need and want to play and they are learning exponentially during the process.
So next time you see your children engaged in pretend play, don’t rush them off to do homework, clean up their room or attend piano lessons. Allow some extra time for them to build a rocket ship from chairs and blankets and pretend they’re astronauts. It’s time well spent!
For 17 years, Lupe Garcia has served as a Maternal Child Health coordinator at MOMS Orange County, where she teaches women to have healthy pregnancies and deliver healthy babies. She has extensive training in child development. To learn more about MOMS Orange County, visit momsorangecounty.org.