Honey, I Smashed the iPad!
These nine inventive game ideas from the founder of Child’s Play NY will get your children’s imaginations in gear.
When I became a mom six years ago, I realized that play helped with frustrating everyday tasks like clean-up or teeth-brushing. But most importantly, it meant that my family wouldn’t spend so much time in front of screens. I’m not remotely a “screen-free” mom – if you are, major respect! – but I’m working on ways to boost the imaginative muscles in my son so that the tablet isn’t the first resort.
Growing up in Brooklyn and Los Angeles with seriously playful actor-parents instilled in me the power of play, so it is not a surprise that after training in theater I went on to start the children's performance company Child’s Play NY. Through our artist-actor led classes and workshops, we teach kids life skills including social-emotional learning, mindfulness and “growth mindset,” which is Professor Carol Dweck’s term for teaching students how to build intelligence as if it were a muscle.
In fact, imaginative play is so integral that doctors have even started prescribing it. Here, in New York where space is tight and winters are long, having a game-plan (literally) for those colder months is not just important, it's a must. So, when you’re racking your brain for fun ways to keep your little ones occupied, here are nine of my favorite imagination-fueled activities.
1. Talk of the Show
Hosting your own talk show is especially great for older children, who might have seen clips of "Ellen" or something similar on YouTube. Get dressed up and interview him or her as an important guest. Are they Superman or Elsa from "Frozen"? Even if your kid can be shy, this kind of platform will bring out his or her chatty side. Put out chairs for an imaginary audience to set the scene. You can even record the show on your iPhone and watch it back. It’s a fun way to use screens as an addition to a game instead of the focus.
Pro tip: To kickstart creativity before you begin, take a paper-towel roll, stick a ball of tin foil to the top and boom! You’ve got a microphone.
2. Animal Yoga
This is the ultimate rainy-day game when you’re stuck inside and the kids need to get rid of some physical energy. Pick an animal or creature (lizard, elephant, mermaid), set the scene (desert, jungle, ocean) and use music to get them inspired. Try downward-facing dog. How would an elephant balance on one leg? How does a mermaid swim through the sea? Let the kids take turns to be the teacher and lead the class, creating their own poses and mimicking each other.
Pro tip: Finish your session with savasana to calm down bodies and minds. (It will give you a well-earned break too!)
3. Build a Fort
Your home is already full of tools that are great for play. Use sheets to build a fort, or hide stuffed animals, turn down the lights and use flashlights to go on a “bear hunt.” Using what you already have helps kids feel as though they’re creating the game themselves and inspires more creativity.
Pro tip: You don’t need to buy a bunch of new stuff or own a treasure trove of costumes to have an imaginative playtime experience.
4. Treasure Hunt
Think of a list of items that your kids will easily be able to find, e.g., their toothbrush, favorite toy, scooter or bike helmet. Set up a scavenger hunt by leaving simple clues leading them from one to the next, finishing at the freezer for a well-deserved treat.
Pro tip: Illustrate the game on index cards and bind them together with a pipe cleaner for an instant mini-book.
5. Change the Track
Instead of turning to the obvious pop songs, use movie soundtracks to underscore your adventures. For example, when playing freeze dance, put on the film score to a classic western or James Bond and dance like a super villain or a spy. Your kids will get swept up in the music and really feel like they’re in a movie. When the music stops, freeze in a pose that’s in character.
Pro tip: This can be incorporated into all play time. If you’re being dinosaurs for the day, put on the soundtrack to "The Land Before Time" to add a heightened dimension to the game.
6. Arts and Crafts
Arts and crafts are a great alternative to keep fidgeting hands busy. Break out the brightly colored modeling clay and get building your favorite creatures, real or make-believe. We all know kids enjoy getting their hands dirty, and they’ll love the way the clay feels in their hands.
Pro tip: If you only have white clay, wait for it to air dry and paint it – two activities in one!
7. Simon Says, "No Boredom"
Even the agonizing moments of parenting can be played through, like tidying away toys and getting teeth brushed. Simon Says or Follow the Leader work wonders when trying to get everyone out of the house. When trimming nails, each finger can represent a new line in a story: One: Once upon a time; Two: There was a mermaid; Three: Who lived under the sea. You’ll be at 10 before you know it.
Pro tip: Just like you don’t need a voice like Adele to sing to your kids at night, it’s important to understand that you don’t have to be a naturally gifted storyteller for any of these games.
8. Test Your Touch
Set up bowls full of differently textured items from around the house: popcorn, pompoms, a Koosh ball, etc. Use a scarf as a blindfold and let everyone take turns guessing what’s in each bowl. Get them to describe what they’re feeling. This is a fun group game that quickly turns silly, and it’s as entertaining for those watching as for the person guessing.
Pro tip: If your kids are feeling adventurous (and you’re not afraid to get sticky), try this with food for a blind taste test.
9. Hide and Seek
When all else fails, never underestimate an old classic. These games have stood the test of time for a reason.
Pro tip: Extend the game into a craft and create a map of the best hiding spots you found together.
Jocelyn Greene is the founder and executive director of the theater education company Child’s Play NY . For the past 10 years, she and her team of professional teaching artist-actors have led classes, camps, birthday parties and drama workshops for children ages 3-16 in NYC. She lives with her husband and 6-year-old son in Brooklyn.