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The Power of Play

By Susan Magsamen

Whether it's a family checkers tournament or an afternoon spent examining anthills in the backyard, play is an integral part of a happy, healthy childhood. Playtime helps children escape the pressure of busy, scheduled lives. It helps them connect with parents and siblings.

Author William J. Doherty, says that it's critical for time-stretched families to develop rituals that make "togetherness time" an essential part of a family's life. Unless parents are intentional about their efforts, time for play may be considered expendable.

While parental involvement is key to great playtime experiences, parents shouldn't feel a need to join in every aspect of their child's play. In fact, active time spent alone or with peers is an equally important part of a child's development.

The possibilities for independent play are limitless: playing dress-up with a neighbor, inventing a secret code and sending messages to a friends, watching clouds for familiar shapes or for signs of changing weather. Adults often recall the low-tech imaginative play of their own childhoods with a kind of wistfulness, as if it's impossible for today’s kids to enjoy bird-watching, making clothes for dolls, or planning backyard variety shows with their friends. Children don't lack interest or ability. More likely, they simply don't have the time and encouragement to play in ways that might require a bit of planning, practice and flights of imagination.

According to most educators and psychologists, independent or free play happens when adults make time for kids to explore, create, experiment and imagine on their own.

Setting the Stage for Play

Children feel empowered when they make decisions and rely on their own skills, resources and abilities. Parents can encourage free play by setting the stage. "It's important that the parent is available," says William J. Doherty. "Adults can help by setting up a situation, making space available, helping a child choose materials for a project. But being available is key." Independent activity can provide a child with a variety of interests, a sense of well-being and fun.

Carefully chosen toys can open doors to a child's resourcefulness, self-reliance, and imagination. Choose age-appropriate toys, games and activities that ensure a successful, satisfying experience for children before moving on to more challenging games and projects.

Don’t forget a selection of "real" tools. Sturdy shovels, a good magnifying glass, small but functional hammers and screwdrivers all foster the authentic experiences children seek when they're playing alone or with friends.

While children want and need to play alone, they still want and need adult supervision, attention, and admiration.

When looking for toys and games to encourage family play, look for toys that appeal to your own interests – now or when you were a child. Many classic toys and games are still available and can bring back memories that are fun for families to share. Kids love to see adults genuinely engrossed in playful activity, and may be more likely to join in with enthusiasm.

Make sure all family members have a role in family game nights. For example, while one child helps to prepare dinner, another sets up a board game to be ready to play after dinner. Try leaving a deck of cards on the kitchen table and set a goal of mastering a new game each week.

From make-believe to building blocks, play can provide important emotional and intellectual stimulation. From social skills to an appreciation for nature, it offers lasting learning experiences. And while play is all about fun and freedom, it can require careful planning on the part of busy families. "It's like exercise," says a San Diego mother of three. "It's hard to make pulling out a jigsaw puzzle or a deck of cards after dinner a habit, but now that we've made it part of our evening routine, I look forward to it!" Often parents begin to shift their perspectives about what they really find relaxing. Joining in as children laugh, play is a natural antidote for the everyday stress in the lives of hurried, preoccupied adults.

Susan Magsamen is Founder and President of Curiosity Kits.

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