15 inspirational ways to play with your child
Miriam McCaleb gets strategic to keep the good times rolling.
These ideas, honestly explored, will add more play into your home. And it’ll be fantastic! But I end by saying that all of us get a pass: you have permission to use your status as Adult of the Species to keep yourself sane. For me, that means I don’t have battery operated, noisy toys in the house. At all. They go in the playhouse at the end of the path. My husband doesn’t mind noisy toys, but won’t tolerate messy play in the house. So we do that outside, too. But that’s all – just one rule each. Other than that, let your house be as playful as can be.
Categorize and consolidate
I’m a fan of sorting toys as it's much easier to add or remove props if you have them consolidated. This is easiest done when children are in bed or on an outing with Grandad. The time you’ll spend organising all the finger puppets into one abandoned pencil case and separating all the wooden blocks from the marble track is time you will gain back as your children play with existing stuff in a much more focussed way.
Keep it real
There is a reason kids are attracted to the saucepan cupboard and the Tupperware drawer. They love being a part of our real, adult world. Our everyday items are fascinating to children and interacting with them teaches about the world. This being so, consider offering children the broken cordless home phone instead of buying the plastic toy faux phone. As long you’re safety conscious, err on the side of real (especially with gardening, cooking or carpentry tools) for your kids.
Yes, by all means 'move it' in a rhythmic way. Show your kids all your moves from the school disco, circa 1990. But this is a call for more movement in all sorts of ways because the best way to jump-start play is to get physical. When your three-year-old asks you to be Baby Jaguar to her Diego, really go for it. Prowl and crawl and pounce. Throw a ball or frisbee as far or as high as you can. Practice handstands on the trampoline. Show your children what it is to enjoy our miraculous bodies.
Open ended and flexible
Help your kids find the extraordinary in the ordinary by offering toys with endless possibilities rather than toys that are utterly prescriptive. A plastic petrol pump will probably only ever be a pretend petrol pump, but a solid wooden box can be a petrol pump, a cave, an island, a waka, a checkout. Just think of the limitless ways you could use a collection of driftwood!
Extending play with props
A superb way to extend play is to add props, for instance a mirror for the dress-up box. You probably already do this, but it’s worth a bit of deliberate effort. Try: adding toy cars to sand play, adding small toy people to play dough, using measuring cups in the bath. Clean the sand from the cars and the dough from the people and now add them to your block play. Mix it up!
Okay, I love our trampoline and my kids adore the rope swing, but it can sometimes be a bit same, same. Immovable, unchanging gear. Source some old sheets and clothes-pegs, invest in a couple of robust planks and a few strong wooden boxes (or score some old wooden speaker boxes from a garage sale, as I once did!) and let the ever-changing world of obstacle courses and hut building open up.
Get down, part one
Adults are large, children are small and if families are to enjoy rich play lives at home, adults have GOT to get down on the floor. Have a look at the way that different people engage with kids, or rather, the ways that children respond to different adults. You can bet there is a floor-time correlation. Adults who will loll on the carpet are far more interesting than those insistent on life lived at the kitchen table or couch. Be a loller. PS. No phone, no tablet. Just you.
Get down, part two
This time, I'm encouraging getting down of a different sort. Like in a James Brown kind of a way. Music, baby. The right soundtrack to your day can make a huge difference to the emotional climate in your house. Kitchen chores can become joyful and drawing with the kids just got infinitely more interesting when you set your online radio to ‘House Music Dance Fest'. Experiment with kitchen bench percussion as you wait for the toaster. I’m a nicer mother with reggae music or a wee bossa nova rhythm playing. Sad, but true.
En masse = interesting
Think of children’s resources in terms of creating collections. While this is especially true for older infants, toddlers and preschoolers, humans of all ages enjoy collecting. A grouping of something (driftwood, marbles, a beloved variety of toy) can elevate the mundane into the marvellous. I’ve seen the lids from baby food jars turned into a collection. Shells and rocks are wonderful collectables, and the skills that children practice as they categorise, stack and sort are all useful pre-math thinking.
A quick word here on the value of thinking strategically about storage. Because while I'm big on collections, trips to the op-shop and reusing broken household stuff, I'm not a fan of clutter. Make some things freely available (open shelves, accessible toys) but you don’t need ALL the stuff out and available. Chaos is not conducive to play (or parental sanity!). Stash things out of sight; some kind of rotating system for toys is great, as are frequent purges of the stuff you don’t need anymore. Have a shelf or basket in most (even all) rooms to corral kids’ gear into. I adore old-fashioned bedside cabinets for their combination of cupboard, open cubby and useful surface. I have these in all rooms, not just bedrooms, and they can usually be found pretty inexpensively in second hand shops or on Trade Me.
Change of scene
If you’re all a bit stir crazy and nothing feels playful anymore, try a change of scene. Walk (skip!) to the letter box, have a picnic in the bedroom, make a hut under the kitchen table. A location change – even if just for ten minutes – can work magic.
Playful, musical words
There is a marvellously un-messy, un-tidy-uppy way to inject a bit more of a playful tone into your home, and that is by using your words. Yes, play word games, but also try crazy voices, silly accents and made up words. Sing your instructions, involve body percussion to time out the tooth brushing. Challenge your own vocabulary – are you “a bit confused” by your new cell phone or could you be “utterly discombobulated”? A great place to experiment here is with non-swearing almost-expletives. (“What the flapjack?” “Shiver me timbers!”).
Purses, buckets and bags
A great joy for toddlers is how their newfound walking skill gives them free hands. Whereas crawling used four limbs, this whole bipedal trip enables small people to carry things on the move. I think this must be one of the reasons that pretty much every toddler I’ve known has enjoyed toting stuff around. Small buckets, baskets with handles, purses from the second hand shop – a few of those in strategic locations will bring hours of pleasure to your small person. Include some other dress-ups (things little hands can manage, like hats) and access to a mirror and you’ve just opened up new universe to your kids.
This is education speak for 'tidy up', but if you’re anything like me you are sick to the back teeth of tidying up. So try calling it 're-presenting the room' and see if it feels more palatable. It might seem counterintuitive to talk about tidying up in a feature about play, but a slightly tidy-ish room is much easier to play in than one that is 100% chaos. Best if kids help, but still worthwhile if they don’t. This time.
Remember - and feel
The most important one of all. We can’t really feel free adding playtime to our lives unless we have taken something of a journey into our own play past. In his book Play, Dr Stuart Brown urges us all to visualise something in the past that gave “the sense of unfettered pleasure, of time suspended....of wanting to do this thing again and again. Remember and feel that emotion again and hold on to it, because that is what’s going to save you”.
Miriam McCaleb parents, gardens and writes at home in rural North Canterbury. A former university lecturer and kindergarten teacher, she loves nothing more than a jolly good play. She invites you to visit her at baby.geek.nz.
AS FEATURED IN ISSUE 29 OF OHbaby! MAGAZINE. CHECK OUT OTHER ARTICLES IN THIS ISSUE BELOW