Play serves many different roles in childhood development, including building language skills, strengthening motor skills used in writing, learning to explore and problem solve, and cooperating with others. But how can adults support their child’s play? According to Early Learning librarian Susan Anderson-Newham, adults can alternate between being a partner, a stage manager providing the materials, or a director who helps their child build new skills as they play.
When you play with your child, your role can be to simply play alongside them, modeling how to play, but not taking over your child’s play. For example, as you play with blocks you can model how to build a house and see whether your child imitates you. You can also model turn-taking by each adding a brick to a structure, imitating how they might play with another child.
As the stage manager, you provide the material, environment, or game and let them investigate. Remember that toys are not the most important part of play. Cardboard boxes, sticks, and rocks can provide a wide scope for the imagination. The books Loose Parts: Inspiring Play in Young Children and Loose Parts: Inspiring Play With Infants and Toddlers might give you ideas about how everyday materials can allow children to direct their own play. For activities that are more structured, check out Unplugged Play: Toddler and Unplugged Play: Preschool. The book Games to Play with Babies offers gentle, simple ways to connect to your infant and build developmentally appropriate skills. I Love Dirt reminds us that one of the best places for explorative play is the outdoors. Born to be Wild is another book that provides outdoor activities throughout the seasons.
Children’s play is often repetitious. For example, they may go through the same dialogue over and over in imaginative play. While we want to let children lead most of the time, in the director role adults can also give children a boost to reach a more mature stage of play. If you are playing pretend with them you can introduce a new element to the story, such as suggesting that the baby doll you are playing with is hungry and asking what the baby likes to eat. If you are building with materials, you can ask open-ended questions such as “tell me about what you’re making.” Make sure to allow for lots of processing time as they answer. This gives kids a chance to practice verbal skills and vocabulary while also helping them move from just exploring shapes or textures to planning.
You can also elevate your child’s play by helping them interact with other children. Conflict is a natural part of play; helping your child work through the negative feelings and reach solutions with others is a great way for them to build those skills in a safe environment. Here are a few picture books about sharing, taking turns, and saying sorry to help your child prepare for those situations.
People Share with People by Lisa Wheeler
Blocks by Irene Dickson
Can I Play Too by Mo Willems
Are We Still Friends? by Ruth Horowitz
Your child is a natural explorer and is always finding new ways to interact with their environment. Our most important job is to give them the space, opportunity, and time, and they will do the rest. Have fun! - Crystal (Downtown)