My oldest daughter is five years old and I’ve found it to be my favorite age yet. Five is unselfconsciously singing out loud while skipping down the sidewalk. Five is full of questions that I can’t answer. Best of all, five is full of imagination. I love to watch her play when she is wrapped up in a world of her own creation, though I wish it didn’t always have to result in a mess!
Experts tell us that the ability to play creatively is essential to a child’s development. It is through play that children start to develop skills they will use throughout their life like constructive problem-solving and self-regulation. Through using their imagination and playing pretend, children to make sense of their life experiences, cope with adversity, and try out new roles. Play also helps children develop attributes such as curiosity, reasoning, and a sense of competence.
In 1984, the deregulation of children’s television made it possible for companies to start marketing toys and other products to children directly through TV programs. According to the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) marketers spent $100 million targeting children in 1983, before the deregulation, compared to approximately $17 billion spent today.
Best-selling toys are rarely designed to support creative play. They are designed to sell. Loaded up with lights, sounds, computerized movement all kinds of gimmicks to attract children’s attention it doesn’t matter if that attention doesn’t last because a newer, flashier model will be marketed soon. According to the CCFC, “the more play is predetermined by a toy, the more likely that creative and imaginative play and its benefits will be jeopardized—children will be bored when they aren’t told what to do and be unable to think for themselves or identify and solve problems.” In other words, a child can dress Barbie up, but then not know what to make her do.
The best news for parents is that creative play is inexpensive in addition to being great for kids. Children who play creatively are not as dependent on constantly purchasing new toys in order to have fun. They are better able to look at their environment and make something from what is available. And they are also able to use the toys they have in a variety of ways which reduces the need to constantly spend money on new toys.
So what can we do to ensure our kids have the kind of creative playtime they need?
When purchasing toys, look for open ended toys instead of single-purpose playthings. For example, a child’s indoor popup tent can be shaped like Thomas the Tank Engine or it can be just a plain colorful tent. It’s a lot easier to pretend it’s a bear’s cave complete with stuffed bears or a rocket ship taking you to the moon if you start with a plain tent. Blocks, art supplies, dolls and stuffed animals (without computer chips and not related to TV or movie characters), dress up clothes (also not based on TV or movie characters) are all open ended toys.
Look outside the toy aisle for creative play inspiration. Instead of spending $30 for a Bilibo, the colorful plastic shell-like toy designed for open ended play, try a set of six small, round bath mats from Target for $12. They can be stepping stones, islands in the ocean, or taken outside for bases in a baseball game. Reusing and recycling are great sources of items for use in creative play. A cardboard wrapping paper tube, a piece of string, and a paper clip can become a fishing rod to catch fish cut out of construction paper. Toothpicks and a bag of marshmallows can become a (delicious) building toy. And don’t forget the all time favorite, the giant cardboard box!
The experts tell us to let children be bored. Those dreaded four words, “Mom, I’m bored” can make parents feel put on the spot as if it were a problem to be solved. Or neglectful as if they are not providing enough stimulation for their child. According to parenting expert Dr. Laura Markham, a mother and Clinical Psychologist at Columbia University, unstructured time challenges children to find and follow their own passions, to imagine, invent and create.
While Dr. Markham tells us kids are always happiest in self-directed play, the ability to play without direction can be a rusty skill that needs practice to grow. To overcome any initial resistance, try setting a short time limit on their self-directed playtime using a portable kitchen timer to provide a visual aid. As they grow better at following their inner voices, you can slowly increase the time.
Another idea is to create a boredom buster jar. Sit down with your child when he or she is in a good mood and not complaining of boredom. Brainstorm with them a list of fun things they could do the next time they are bored. Build a fort with blankets and pillows, make a train with the kitchen chairs and go on an imaginary trip, put on some music and dance, make popsicle stick puppets and put on a show are a few ideas that might get your jar started.
Make time for unstructured play. In today’s hectic world, it’s easy to become overscheduled and feel pressure to make every moment count. Among parents, I know many feel a kind of “keep up with the Jones” parenting pressure not wanting their child to fall behind in the race to become successful high achievers. There is no message reaching parents that a weekend nature walk with a container for collecting treasures is every bit as important for a child’s growth and development as enrolling them in the latest enrichment class. It’s cheaper too! Give yourself permission to relax and slow down and know that this unstructured downtime is beneficial to the whole family.