by Carol Grise
During this summer’s heat wave, families have been struggling to find ways to keep children busy. Instead of turning on the television, computer, or a movie, give your child time for imaginative play.
For most of history, children have played by roaming around with other children, engaging in freewheeling imaginative play. They pretended to be pirates, cowboys, princesses, or heroes. While in play, they would talk out their feelings, make plans for what they were going to do, and how they would do it. This kind of play may look like a waste of time. However, imaginative play allows children to think, develop rules, control impulses and emotions, focus their attention, and make decisions. These traits are self-control or self-regulation skills. When developed, these skills enable children to become better learners.
During the past 50 years, play has changed radically, shifting from make-believe time to activities with specific toys and predetermined scripts. Cardboard swords of yesterday are now flashing, battery-operated light sabers. Today’s dolls and stuffed animals talk and make sounds. Parental concerns about safety and academic achievement have limited inside and outside free play, replacing this time with structured lessons and sports activities. Between school or child care and planned activities, today’s children have very little time for imaginative play.
What can families do to encourage the development of self-control or self-regulation skills?
Provide 30-60 minutes of time per day for creative play. Let your child be the guide as to what kind of play he enjoys.
If he enjoys dramatic pretend play, create a collection of dress-up clothes from outgrown adult or sibling clothes. Check local thrift stores for inexpensive costumes. Recycled items, such as gift wrap cardboard tubes, can be made into props for play. Allow your child to create and act out a story using toy figures, dolls, stuffed animals, or toy vehicles. Pretend activities can involve art, such as making paper bag puppets and retelling a favorite children’s story.
Playing games helps a child learn to follow directions, think before acting, be patient, and control his actions. Games such as Mother May I, Simon Says, and Red Light/Green Light strengthen impulse control. Board games, such as Memory, Chutes and Ladders, as well as Candyland, help a child develop patience, handle frustration, and learn to follow rules.
Provide opportunities for activities involving planning and concentration. Legos, Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs, and other building blocks require a child to plan and focus on the task at hand. Puzzles also are a great way to build concentration skills. While cooking together, involve the child in following a recipe, which will help to strengthen his ability to follow directions.
Read stories with characters who meet and overcome challenges. Book characters who solve problems through hard work, determination, and persistence, found in such picture books as “The Little Engine That Could” by Watty Piper or “Giraffes Can’t Dance” by Giles Andreae, can open a discussion about these important traits. Your local library can help you locate these and other books on such themes.
Permit and encourage your child to use self-guided talk. Imaginative play allows a child to speak to himself, guiding his own behavior. Encouraging a child to talk himself through a challenging task will help to strengthen concentration and problem solving skills.
With the start of the school year, many children will now have school assignments to complete and even less time for play. However, after the homework is completed, give your children the opportunity to play on their own.
Play time for children is not wasted time. Through imaginative play, children develop the ability to control their emotions, impulses, and behavior. Being able to manage their feelings and concentrate on a task prepares a child to be ready for learning at school.
Help your child build readiness skills—let him PLAY!