Have you ever noticed how many different theories there are when it comes to raising children? The differing discipline theories alone could practically fill their own library! One thing that all the experts seem to agree on is that play-based education and open and free play are super beneficial for your child. Great! Kids are good at playing. So why not just buy a bunch of toys and stick them in the basement? If you buy them toys and give them time to play, then you should expect an admission letter from Harvard headed your way in a few years, right? Not quite.
Open play is the idea that children, especially those under the age of 6, learn best from imaginative, non-directed play. Basically, the idea that kids learn best when they have choices and follow their instincts and interests. It means letting them ACTIVELY try things and experiment and imagine. However, just buying some toys and letting them go at it is missing an important element: Intention.
As a nanny of 20 years, I try to remember that while kids need to follow their flights of fancy, I need to think carefully about the big picture and make considered choices about things. We have to consider the whole child and remember that while they steer the ship to an extent, we are still responsible for providing them a map. We must intentionally plan activities and projects and play that stimulate them mentally, physically, emotionally and socially.
Wait a minute. Did I just tell you that you that self-guided play is the way children learn best, but that we have to control it? It may have sounded like that! What I really am saying is that while we should give children ?opportunities to explore and choose their own activities, we can also control and shape their play environment in a way that helps and inspires them!
What do I mean by this? One way to guide them is by placing materials out that can stimulate kids' imaginations instead of lots of toys that have only one purpose. Exposing kids to playthings that have many uses means that in the morning we can be building a castle and in the afternoon we can be building bridges and later we are crashing thru towers - all with the same blocks. Instead of saying, "Play with this," I purposefully leave out things that I hope will interest them.
It means setting up my play spaces with materials and toys that are diverse. Not every toy is plastic - some are natural things like wood or cloth. There are crafting supplies and paper nearby in case we need to write a story about our castle building. We have beads and rice and play dough for sensory stimulation. We have toys that are quiet and some that make loud noises.
We introduce toys and other materials to the child slowly and with thought, so that a child is not overwhelmed and unable to process. Kids under the age of 6 process things 12 times slower than adults. Even though their hyper energy can draw us in, it is up to us to set a pace that their brains can handle.
Playing with intention means that as we sail on the pirate ship we have built in the living room with pillows and sheets, we can ask questions that spur on bigger thoughts. What if our ship could go super fast? What might happen? Where shall we sail to? China? Let’s get a map and look and see where that is! What might we see there? What might we eat or smell or hear?
We set up the room so that there are places for large activities that involve our whole bodies and places where we curl up with a good book or puzzles. I like to look at the playroom while sitting or laying on the floor. Is there plenty of open space? Are there too many toys out all at once? Is it organized in a way that makes sense to the kids and so that they can get things out AND put them away easily?
Of course play should still be fun, and kids DO need time to play alone. It is important for them to recharge their batteries and organize their thoughts. Planning your day to intentionally include some organized activities and some free time will help you to raise a more well-rounded child. I can't promise the letter from Harvard, though.