Many researchers believe that today’s kids live in a world where childhood and free play are under siege. Parents sign their kids up for organized activities as soon as possible or simply hand them an iPad to keep them occupied. Remember parents: unstructured play time is an inherent need.
“Neuroscientists, developmental biologists, psychologists, social scientists and researchers from every point of the scientific compass now know that play is a profound biological process,” says Stuart Brown, a leading play researcher in the United States. Play “shapes the brain and makes us smarter and more adaptable,” Brown says. It also fosters empathy in kids, and lies at the very heart of creativity and innovation.
Unstructured play helps children learn how to work in groups, to share, negotiate, resolve conflicts, regulate emotions and behavior, and speak up for themselves. Perhaps most importantly, it helps them to develop what interests them.
Play is the catalyst to a more productive and happier life and it's critical for children’s brain development, says Christine Carter, Ph.D., author of Raising Happiness (Ballantine; 2010).
So while it’s good to be involved in activities, too, curb your impulses to sacrifice good old-fashioned play in favor of extra preschool academics and structured sports — in fact, know that starting academic instruction earlier in life does not necessarily lead to greater success, and it might even hinder it. Studies have shown that children attending academic preschools showed no advantage in reading or math achievement over kids who went to play-based preschools, but that they CAN have higher levels of test anxiety.
In our achievement-oriented world, Carter says, we often lose sight of just how important play is for young children. So make time to roll up your sleeves and dig in with your child. It’s time to have learning fun:
Fish for Fun
Make different colors of fish out of construction paper and number each one. Glue a magnetic strip (get at a craft store) to each. Make a fishing rod by tying a string to any simple wooden stick and attaching another small magnet to the end. Spread the fish out, call out a number and take turns fishing.
Make two sets of index cards with 10 cards in each. On the first set, write the numbers 1 to 10 or make numbers your child can trace. Then help him with the second set: Put a sticker on a card to match up with the card that has the number 1, and so on. Lay the cards out face up, and see if your child can make matches. Once he’s got that down, turn the cards over to play a traditional game of memory.
Let your child correct you as you sing the words wrong in songs that he knows. He’ll have a ball straightening you out. Then, work on singing rhymes and changing those words, too. The point is to make the activity silly (but smart!).
Create a hopscotch grid on a tile, carpet or wood floor using low-tack painter’s tape. Don’t forget to create the numbers as well. You can use a Beanie Baby or other small, stuffed animal instead of a rock. Take turns hopping through the course.
Read your child a story and tell him you might forget parts but maybe he can remember them for you. This will help him to listen. Then, see if he can re-tell the story in his own way with favorite stuffed animals or puppets.
Shaving Cream Letters
Shaving cream is basically canned soap. Tell your child you’re going to make letters in the foam. Sit down at the table and spray several lines of shaving cream in front of you both, then start making letters. Don’t be upset if you have to spray more or if the activity turns into just a big mess!
It’s so fun to use dry-erase markers on a mirror! Let your child trace his head or ears, and add extras to his picture. You can write letters and words here, too.
Kids love imaginary fun and playing store is the classic. Make sure your child has a simple cash register. Set small, safe objects in baskets or bins on your kitchen table and take turns “shopping” for items and paying for them.
The Touch Bag
Collect items from nature — a flower, a stick, a rock, a feather, a leaf — and put them in a bag. Have your child feel each item to guess what it is. Once he pulls it out, ask questions: How long do you think it hung on the tree? What animals did it see?
Put small little toys in a “treasure chest” and hide it in your house. Create simple picture clues (a plant, a couch, a step stool or other items around your home), either by drawing them or cutting them out of a magazine. Then start a scavenger hunt with the clues. Your child will follow them to find the treasure. This will enhance the listening and direction-following skills that help children in the classroom.