It is no secret that I am a play advocate. I believe in the power of play to support children’s healthy development and allow them to grow into capable adults who can make the world a better place. All children play, and with time, space, and encouragement play is how they learn and make sense of their world. Now that schools are closed in response to COVID-19, children need to play to develop a sense of control in an ever-changing world. The Guardian recently reported, “Child mental health experts have urged the government to prioritize children’s play and socializing with friends over formal lessons and academic progress when schools in England reopen and lock down restrictions are eased.” The benefits of play are endless, making it the best tool for supporting children through this pandemic.
The push to remote schooling provides an opportunity for parents to promote and encourage children’s play at home. Though play comes naturally to all children, some parents are at a loss for ideas to encourage play at home, especially as the stay at home orders continue. Below are some suggestions for how parents can encourage play at home. Please note, you should begin by just letting your child play. If you give them the space and time to play, they will do so without needing much input from you. Try not to hover and ask a lot of questions but do allow them to bring you into their play when they are ready. Also, all suggestions come with the caveat that any interaction with other people should be done by following social distancing guidelines.
Getting Started: Setting up Children’s Play at Home
Believe it or not, children do not need a lot of toys in the home to play. Having toys are great, but any parent who has ever bought a gift for their child might have noticed that playing with the box brought as much joy as playing with the new shiny toy. As children play, they engage in various forms of symbolic representation as a block becomes a drawbridge, and a bowl of leaves and rocks becomes a stew. The mental ability to allow one object to become something else is one of the many benefits of play. Your home is full of so many materials children can use during play. If you do not have helpful materials like tape, glue, paper, crayons, etc. you might want to work with your neighbors to form a Play Mutual Aid Society (similar to collecting food for those in need, but you collect materials for play). Someone might have materials their children have outgrown that they would be more than happy to donate. Others, like me, might be a collector of school materials with no children at home and would be happy to donate paper and colored pencils (they’re really for my nephews, but I will not get to see them for a while). The truth is you will not know what your neighbors can contribute until you ask. This is an excellent activity for your kids to take the lead in organizing!
Playing in the Living Room
The living room is a great place to allow children’s play to flourish. First, you want to move anything breakable and make as much space as possible. Add some sheets, blankets, or towels and see what your child will create with couch cushions. Living room forts can take time to build and keep children busy while you are on that Zoom call! Children will benefit from time for big body play. When you have time to watch, allow the children to put cushions on the floor and practice jumping off the couch onto the cushions. Moving their large muscles is a great way to expend energy and tire them out! Many parents probably do not have blocks at home for building. How about books? I have a ton of books on my shelves that would be great for letting children build with (finally putting those law school textbooks to good use).
Water play can keep a child engaged for hours. If you have a step stool, fill the sink, and allow your child to play with toys in the water. No step stool, consider filling your large pots with water, placing a towel on the floor and letting your child engage in water play. Sink and float activities are an excellent way for children to play with water. Collect a bunch of toys and have your child place them in the water one at a time and observe whether the toy sinks or float. Have them put all the sink toys in a pile and all the float toys in a separate pile. Let them tell you about the sink and float experiment and ask questions to expand their thinking. Add recyclable bottles, so children practice filling them up with water and pouring it out. Water play provides endless possibilities for exploration and learning.
Are You Ready to Let Them Play in Your Bedroom?
Guess what parents? In your bedroom, you have all that children need for sociodramatic play! Take out your belts, hats, scarves, pocketbooks, blazers, jerseys, and shoes and let your children play dress up! Storytelling through dramatic play is an excellent way for children to express themselves. Ask them to create a story to share with the family later. They can practice acting out the story with all the props and present the final show before or after dinner. Take some time and dress up with them too! You will have just as much fun as they do!
Recyclable Materials are Your Friend
Before you toss the recycling, you might want to let your children take out what they need for play. Empty food boxes, toilet paper, and paper towel tubes, and junk mail are great materials for children’s play. So are all those Amazon boxes that you or your neighbors keep getting delivered. When I taught kindergarten to celebrate Black History Month, we did a unit on Black inventors. For weeks I asked parents to bring in recyclable materials, and after we read about different inventors, the children had to create their own invention out of recyclable materials. For days they assembled an array of contraptions that did everything from turn everything to chocolate to produce rainbows on demand. Children had so much fun being creative with materials that we throw away every day!
Technology: Use Responsibly
Technology is here to stay, and as much as we should be concerned about the impact it has on children, we cannot escape its daily use. We can and should be thoughtful about how we use technology. We should resist the urge to allow children to spend too much time passively using technology. Of course, children can watch a show on the iPad for 30-45 minutes while you are on the 100th Zoom meeting of the day, but you should also encourage active use of technology. Communicating with video technology is helpful for all children who are missing the daily social interactions from school. Whether it’s other children or family members, video chats are an excellent way to remind children that others are out there and miss them too.
Additionally, consider using technology to support children’s research and investigation. Maybe they want to look at something online while they recreate it at home. Or they have a question about how many legs an insect has or if ants can swim. Using technology to support children’s thinking and play is much better than using technology to keep children busy by consuming what’s on the screen.
Social Distancing Does Not Mean You Can’t Go Outside
Now more than ever, we all need to get outside every day. Humans are not meant to be isolated from each other, and although social distancing is necessary, it can be very hard on children and us. Making time to get outside every day is a great way to beat the social distancing blues. If you have chalk or can get some from your Play Mutual Aid Society, allow children to make chalk art on the driveway or sidewalk. Take walks in the neighborhood and collect leaves, sticks, and rocks for children to play with back at home. As you explore the neighborhood, see if your child can draw a map of the neighborhood from memory. Bring paper and pencils and allow children to sketch the neighborhood as you walk. Play I-Spy games with your neighbors and encourage children to find hidden items as you take your daily walk. The ideas are endless; all you have to do is make time to go outside every day, even in the rain!
These are just some ideas for encouraging children’s play at home. Most children do not need encouragement to play, but it might be useful to have some ideas for the child who claims to be bored. If your child has play ideas, find out if there is anything they need to support their play and do your best to help them get it or find a better substitute. As you encourage your child to play at home, you will see the many benefits of play for them and you. We do not know when we will return to a new normal, so until then, let us make the best of it and let the children play!
How are you promoting play during COVID-19? Send your story to firstname.lastname@example.org