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Parental Arts

Three Ways To Encourage Meaningful Play

For parents looking to occupy their young children for longer than say, three minutes, child development expert and founder of Rose & Rex, Allie Klein, offers her top tips for setting your child up for success in the playroom.

Written By Allie Klein

For young children, open-ended play is the single most important tool available to help develop cognitive, physical, social, and emotional skills. Play experiences help children learn to make sense of themselves and the world around them. Play provides instant stress reduction for children because it gives them time to engage and process in the most organic way possible. When children are encouraged to play on their own, they act out things that are happening in their lives, explore emotions, and try on new ideas. When they try on a role, such as doctor, they must take on the perspective of who they are pretending to be, which helps to shift the way they perceive the world and their relationships. Play offers children the time to wrestle with changes and feelings that they may not fully understand, like being fearful of illness or not being able to go to school.

Parents can support meaningful play experiences in many ways, but here are my top three:

Choose Toys Wisely
When it comes to finding the perfect toys, first, ignore the idea that “more is better.” The truth is you don’t need more stuff to help your child “play better,” nor do you need toys with bells, whistles and beeps. All you need are a few toys that are intentionally chosen and designed to do less, so your child does more.

When it comes to choosing a toy, ask yourself these three questions: 1) Is it open-ended? 2) Are its materials healthy and safe? 3) Is it designed to promote imaginative play? By choosing toys that can be re-imagined and repurposed, offer rich sensory experiences, and engage curiosity, you’re supporting well-rounded development.

When picking out toys, you always want to look for items that are designed to engage children in the work of play instead of toys that are meant to offer passive entertainment. Open-ended toys engage children because they aren’t directive. They can do more than one thing and they invite exploration, imagination and ideation. For example, a fire truck that makes noise with the press of a button eliminates an opportunity for the child to make up their own sound; an open-ended truck, one that needs to be pushed to move and given sound to come to life, actively engages a child, supporting their developing language skills, gross motor coordination, and sound exploration. When children are actively engaged in play instead of just entertained they stay involved in the play longer, develop cognitive skills and take part in physical movement.

Look To What You Already Have
The good news is that everything you need for a meaningful play experience is already in your house. Recycled, repurposed and household materials help foster innovative thinking, creativity and togetherness.

Save toilet paper rolls and use them to create a life-sized marble run on the wall with painters tape. Offer shoe boxes as giant building blocks. Make a collage using only recycled materials.

Our Everyday Play Deck, written by child development expert Lisa Zaretsky, shares 125 ways to play with repurposed and household materials. Here is one of my favorite tips from the deck that promotes connection through play with family photos in a time of social distancing: “Line up family photos on the floor to create a family photo walk: ask your child to jump near "someone who wears glasses" or stomp near "someone who has a dog." This is engaging for the body as well as the mind!

See It Through Their Eyes
One of the first steps in supporting independent play (which can be really helpful if you need to work!) is reflecting on the play areas that your child has access to. Choose one play space in your home and spend a few minutes kneeling, squatting, or sitting at your child’s height. What can your child see and reach? Which areas feel most inviting at your child’s height? Are there any spots that feel cluttered or overwhelming? Use the information you collect to change the set-up, from the types of storage to the play materials offered.

A meaningful, safe play area will help little ones develop independence by encouraging them to initiate play on their own, without prompt or intervention. Set up your child’s play area with a small selection of intentional, developmentally appropriate toys (think building blocks, loose parts, play silks and wooden animals), then take a step back—literally! Move away from the play space, putting some distance between you and where your little one is playing. By doing so, you can still observe their play but they are invited to engage autonomously.