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Guest Blogger Kate Bise: Teaching your children to play

I’m a mom of two energetic boys, and when my first boy was born, I was so tired during those first few years. I remember looking forward excitedly to the day when my little boy would play with toys by himself so that I could take a shower or even just sit down and catch my breath. As he got older, he became more independent in so many ways, but for some reason, he still struggled to play by himself! I was confused because he had many great toys, but he would still get bored easily. This left me as a tired, burned out mom, who wanted to spend time with her child, but also wanted time to get other things done and recharge my battery! I desperately searched for how to help my child learn and grow AND get some space for myself. I found that the answer was play! And I’m here to share what I learned with you.

Children are naturally creative and curious and imaginative, but play is actually a skill that we need to teach our children. In the same way that we can teach our children to eat or go to the bathroom by themselves, they need help to learn how to play. The good news is, I really believe you don’t have to do much to help them learn. I think if we set our children up for success, they will do most of the heavy lifting on their own. I am excited to share what I've learned and hopefully they will help set you and your child up for play success.

The child psychologist Piaget said, “Play is the work of childhood”. In order to work, your child needs tools, and in this case, those tools are toys. Not all toys are quite made equal however, and some toys encourage children to play more imaginatively and creatively, and often, for longer periods of time. Toys can fall into two categories- closed ended toys and open ended toys. Close ended toys have a specific goal. Board games, some electronic toys, and even books are all examples of close ended toys. These toys aren’t bad, and they have their place! But they are less helpful when teaching a child the skill of play. Open ended toys are toys that can be played in many different ways with no definite end. Things like blocks, plastic animals, figurines, magnetic tiles, vehicles, play scarves, and play food. These toys can be used in countless ways and in all sorts of different imaginative games. These can help your children foster their own innate imagination and help them create all sorts of different games, without you having to initiate and plan out each one. The good news is these toys do not have to be expensive. Have you ever seen a baby pull out all the pots and pans from the cupboard to play with instead of playing with their toys? You don’t need anything fancy to set your child up for play success.

Place your child’s toys in a small basket on the floor or somewhere that they can access them and have a little bit of space to explore. I’ve learned that sometimes setting out a few things at a time is better. When my boys have too many toys out at once, they tend to get overwhelmed and not play as well! Once you have a small play area set up, sit down with your child and play with them for a bit. Modeling play with them can help them play on their own with time. After a bit, step away and tell them that it’s their turn to play. At first, they may try to follow you, but sometimes working in the same room as them helps. You can also tell them that you’ll be back to check on them to see what they’ve been working on. Remember that they are learning, and they won’t get it right away! Have realistic expectations, and know that with practice your hard work really will pay off!

To conclude, I’ll share a few tips that have been game changers for me. First, include what already interests your child in their toy set up. Is there a particular character or show your child is obsessed with? Get some figurines and set them up with blocks or magna-tiles. If they like vehicles or dinosaurs, set them up with play dough and let them make tire tracks or footprints! Including what they are already interested in will make your job easier! Also, keep it simple! I’ve seen examples of elaborate play set ups on social media, and while there’s nothing inherently wrong with these, your child won’t play very long at first, and it’s easy to burn out when you’ve already invested a lot of time setting things up. Lastly, find small ways to invite your children to play without them noticing. When your child is in a different room, build a small house around an action figure with blocks or line up all of their cars in a line. Oftentimes, when they stumble upon a game already started, they won’t be able to resist jumping in and picking up where you left off! I’ve learned a lot about play as my kids have grown up, and I’m happy I got to share it with you! Working with my children to learn to play has been a game changer for my family, and I hope some of these tips can help you as well!

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