Albert Einstein once said, “Play is the highest form of research.” I have that quote on our play room wall. He is not wrong. As an educator, I am surrounded by little people every day, and the way they learn best? Play. As adults, we are so focused on daily obligations and what has to be done, it’s easy to have our children go play and I can finish what I set out to do. Playing independently is a great skill, however if we are more intentional with teaching play skills, we can teach our children so much more! Here are some things I have learned as my time as an educator, an individual that specifically teaches play, and a mother.
1. Play WITH your children. Too often, as adults we think we are playing WITH our children, but instead we are parallel playing, or playing with the same items just next to them. When you play with your child, avoid asking questions (This is so huge! They do not care what color car they have, they care how fast it goes, and if it can beat yours). Making statements while playing also helps our children to learn how to have conversations with others, and role models situations.
2. Use play to teach. If your child is going to the dentist for the first time, play dentist on his teddy bear. Is your child afraid of the doctor? Show them what will happen on Barbie. Struggling with going poop on the potty? Get some tootsie rolls and show them how Elmo poops on the potty! If your child is struggling with friendships, practice the situations with dolls, Barbies, animals, anything! Show your child how different options may work. Help them problem solve by practicing with their toys. Help them practice difficult or new situations with their toys.
3. Act like a peer, not a parent. I have found myself in the following situation more than once. My oldest sees my youngest playing with a toy, my oldest walks over and grabs the toy away from my youngest and says “Mine!” I witness this, walk over to my oldest, take the toy from him and say “You need to share, we cannot take toys from others.” I have a feeling this is a common situation. But look at what I just did. I took the toy from him and told him he can’t take the toy from his brother. What a conflicting message! We need to explicitly teach skills like sharing, trading and turn taking. In doing this, we need to act like a peer, not a parent. Instead of taking the toy away and lecturing about sharing, I could go over to my oldest with his favorite toy and offer a trade. When I play with my sons I work hard to be a peer and not a parent directing play – I play like a kid!
4. Encourage imagination and problem solving. There is a game some of my teachers use to teach problem solving. It involves holding up an object and asking what it is, and then asking what else it may be. So a spoon may be a spoon for eating, but it could also be a kite, or a shovel, or a flag, or a spinner to pick whose turn it is in the game. Encourage imagination with objects, every toy in your house can have multiple purposes, and the earlier children recognize that fact the better at problem-solving they will be!
These are just a few of my ideas. Share yours in the comments. Use the holiday season to practice playing with your kids and watch the learning happen!