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The Lost Art of Play

By — National Association of Social Workers
Updated on Dec 16, 2008

Introduction

Your child comes home and is full of energy. Homework needs to be done, you have work to do, the laundry is waiting, and you feel as if your child is going to destroy the house like a tornado.  Our society has become so fast paced and full of multi-tasking that play no longer seems to come naturally to adults or children, let alone seem important.

Many schools have eliminated the hour of play time that kids had during recess to add more time for test preparation. Therefore, many homes have reduced extracurricular sports and activities as well as free play in the neighborhood to make room for homework and tutors.  However, it is important to incorporate play into your child's daily activities. 

What Exactly Is Play?

Many parents and caregivers have admitted not knowing how to play or feeling as if they do not play properly with their children. In order to engage in playing with those loved ones, parents and caregivers should consider the definition of play. There is no right or wrong answer to this and I encourage you to take a minute while reading this to stop and write down your definition before continuing to read.

Okay, now that you are back with your definition, I will share with you what the Oxford definition of play is: a verb; to amuse oneself, sport, frolic, or employ oneself in a game. My definition, as a counselor practicing play therapy, is: play is a child’s work where toys are utilized as tools--in children; it is supposed to be a pleasure filled activity.

"Good Toys"

There is much that can be learned to understand play, such as the two different categories (recreational/free play and structured/filial play) and four types of play (imaginative, constructive, creative, and physical). Good toys are an important issue to discuss because “good toys” are not the latest X-Box® or mini-motorcycle.

Toys must be able to fit in small hands, be durable, be manipulable, and appeal to the senses. As a parent, ask yourself “will I play with it?” If the answer is “no” or “I’m not sure”, then don’t buy it.

Expensive is not always the answer and sometimes the play can come in the crafting of the toy. For example, making your own noisemaker by filling a bottle with beads appeals to three senses of the child and also allows a process of creation and pride toward the toy being created. Toys can be made with everyday items in the home, such as cardboard boxes, paper towel rolls, and baking products (to make things like slime and play-doh).

Keep in mind, that there is not always one correct way to do something. I have found that this thought is one of the hardest for parents to accept because it causes disorder—and many people do not like disorder. And, because toys come with directions and games with rules, which lead many people to believe that is the only way to use the toy and game. Learning that you can stop caring about realism while engaging in play with your child is one of the best lessons to be learned. What does it hurt to use a play vacuum on the table or wall instead of the carpet? Why can’t a doll wear one sock and two different shoes?

Children learn and grow through play and will begin to feel restricted and unable to please their parents if parents cannot let go of the need for perfection and correct use of toys. If the game or toy is age appropriate and a lesson can be learned from it, such as a game of memory that encourages learning of the alphabet or numbers, then teach them to play, however be open to allowing other types of play where everyone can change the rules to appeal to each individually.

No Need to Lead

The final tip I have for parents is to not lead during playtime. Children unconsciously copy adults and older children while playing and tend to not always use their imagination if that opportunity is restricted. I would like to encourage you, as the parent, to refrain from giving an opinion, even if the child seeks it. For example, if a child asks her mother if she should paint the tree blue or green, the mother should ask her daughter which color she would like to paint the tree and encourage self choice. Children ask questions such as these because parental approval is important to them. It is important to remind ourselves that the child already knows what they want to color the tree, but wants to make sure approval is there or she will not go with her original instinct.

By allowing your inhibitions to go and scheduling play time with children, you will increase your closeness and encourage self expression. At times you may learn something through your child’s play that they haven’t told you. Please do remember that children spend most of their day in structured learning activities, so it is important to play at home before doing homework. Please take time to play as an adult, with other adults as well and this will increase your own energy and value toward your child’s play.

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