When children are immersed in play, their imaginations run free with almost limitless possibilities. A tree transforms into a mast, a giant, or home base. A pile of laundry becomes a mountain to climb, a monster to vanquish, or a tunnel for a train. This type of imaginative, independent play is crucial in a child’s development, engaging both their body and mind, honing physical strength, agility, and endurance as well as creativity, problem solving, and social skills. Through play, children learn about themselves, others, and the world around them.
Encouraging children to participate in the powerful work of play is harder than ever, however, due to the vast amount of entertainment at their fingertips. Instead of playing for hours outside after school with friends and siblings, many children now spend that time in front of a screen, watching a show, or absorbed in video games. With screen time slowly replacing play time, the overall health and well-being of children is declining.
In her book, Balanced and Barefoot, Angela Hanscom outlines problems that parents, teachers, and childcare workers are now seeing every day. She writes, “More and more children are having difficulty with poor attention skills, controlling emotions, balance, decreased strength and endurance, [and] increased aggression.” As she explains in the rest of her book, the remedy for these problems almost always means getting children involved again with more creative, independent play, especially outdoors.
In this age of media and entertainment, we should encourage children to pursue play more than entertainment by getting them outdoors as much as possible, offering open ended toys that inspire creativity, and including them in the daily life of the home.
The outdoors offers limitless possibilities for budding imaginations. Among the grass, dirt, sticks, rocks, trees, and streams, children can run, climb, dig, move large objects to build forts and dams, and observe the world around them. Whereas inside most things have set purposes, outside an object could be anything you needed it to be. Hanscom notes that because objects in nature “don’t seem to have any inherent function or usefulness, [they] actually inspire kids to use their imaginations.” In my two year old’s case, this currently means pretending sticks are rocket ships.
Getting children outside is also one of the best ways to combat the negative effects of screen time. Many shows intended for children are often filled with unnaturally bright colors, loud music or dialogue, and very short scene changes which can all lead to short attention spans, heightened states of emotion and reactivity, and a lack of creativity over time. Screen time in moderation won’t cause many of these issues, but if screen time replaces play time too often, children begin to expect to be entertained instead of creating their own fun. On the other hand, nature offers just the right amount of stimulation to engage children but not overwhelm them, drawing them into a calming atmosphere where their minds can wander and find inspiration in the almost limitless possibilities.
There are many ways to bring children outside, from trips to state parks, beaches, or lakes, to simply getting out into the yard, walking around the neighborhood, or going to a nearby playground. That said, I have noticed that sometimes playgrounds are not enough by themselves to keep my boys playing for long. My two year old will climb and slide a few times, but if there are no other children to play with, he would rather find the nearest area with dirt, sticks, trees, and water.
Places and Toys that Inspire
At first this puzzled me because playgrounds were some of my favorite places growing up. As I have seen over the years, however, most of my favorite playground equipment has disappeared. Gone are the wildly spinning merry-go-rounds, the teeter totters, and the giant climbing structures. As Hanscom notes, “In an attempt to make playgrounds safer, we have done the extreme. We’ve created equipment that no longer challenges or stimulates children in ways that support healthy child development.” Going to a playground can still help the family get out and let kids play, but my expectations around how long they play has changed. My strategy lately has been to find a playground with trails, woods, or a stream nearby to keep us all outside and playing even when they tire of the playground itself.
For the times that you can’t make it outside, playing indoors with open ended toys is another way to encourage free play. The key is to mimic the options available in nature, bringing the outside in. Toys that are mainly flashy and loud may entertain for a little while, but these toys are some of the least played with in my home overall. They tend to be overstimulating and offer limited play options, so children outgrow them more quickly.
Instead, countless hours of play happen in my home with wood blocks, magnetic pieces, and Legos. Train tracks, cars, balls, and anything else that can move and roll also inspire much play and creativity. Like sticks, pinecones, or rocks, these types of toys are usually small and manipulative, and children can use them to create structures and worlds that inspire endless play possibilities.
We can also encourage play both inside and out by including children in daily life tasks. Adults often forget that what we think of as a mundane chore can delight children and offer an opportunity for play. The hardest part about including kids in chores is not that they are unwilling—much of the time my two year old wants to “help” me—but that we know they can’t quite “do it right,” so we will ultimately have to go back and do it again.
If you have the time and patience to let your kids help you, you may be surprised at how capable they become after a little practice. Include kids in it all. Let them pour the sugar while baking or stir the soup for dinner. Embrace the inevitable mess and chaos of these moments because the connection and lessons we teach by including them are worth it. Sweeping, scooping, pouring, spraying, vacuuming, raking, cooking, sorting, and cleaning up—my toddlers love to do it all. Having them beside me reminds me that we can turn any chore into moments of fun by playing music, engaging the imagination, or making it into a game. As they participate in these tasks, kids learn important life lessons and gain many skills that they will hone as they grow.
Children are wired for play; because of this, they will find play wherever they are. Even though imaginative play comes more naturally to children than to adults, it is still a skill that we should encourage them to practice, especially when screens vie for their attention at every turn. If we continue to guide our children to engage their imaginations and bodies in play, they will learn and grow as God designed.