When we were kids, most of our play was “open play” — a form of play which is primarily directed by the players. But for the most part, today’s play looks different than ours did, and our kids are worse off for it.
According to Tim Holliday, owner of Children’s World neighborhood toy store here in our hometown of Sarasota, open play means, “You take [a toy] out of the box, and it’s up to the child to figure out what to do with it.”
Isn’t that what you did you when you were a kid? You probably had some kind of dolls or action figures, and you made up all kinds of crazy situations for them to act out. Or maybe you lined up your stuffed animals and played “school.” Or maybe you had a play kitchen that you turned into a diner and served gourmet playdough creations to all of your friends.
That’s open play, and it requires that you bring your personality and your creativity to the table. But it seems that nowadays, play isn’t so much about discovery and imagination as it used to be. A lot of it’s just amusement, and for the most part, the “player” is passive.
But what if instead of amusing our kids, we allowed them to become bored? What if we actually encouraged them to become bored? And then, from that place of boredom, where no one and nothing is offering to amuse them, we introduced our kids to some open play toys?
Play Is a Big Deal
So what’s the big deal? What’s so important about how our kids play?
It turns out, a lot of their development hinges on the kind of play kids engage in.
The American Specialty Toy Retailing Association (ASTRA) shared the official position of the American Academy of Pediatrics on the importance of play: “Free and unstructured play is healthy—in fact, essential—for helping children reach important social, emotional, and cognitive developmental milestones as well as helping them manage stress and become resilient,” stated the Academy in a press release.
Child development specialists agree with the American Academy of Pediatrics. Jerome Singer, Ph.D., Professor of Child Studies Emeritus at Yale University and a leading play researcher says, “Play can miniaturize a part of the complex world children experience, reduce it to understandable dimensions, manipulate it and help them understand how it works.”
Singer goes on to say, “The activities that are the easiest, cheapest and most fun to do, such as singing, playing games, reading, storytelling and just talking and listening are also the best for child development.”
That’s open play!
We are big proponents of academic success and striving for excellence in extracurricular activities, but at the end of the day, if your future adult lacks self-confidence, resiliency, coping mechanisms, stress management and self-regulation, what good will his high grades and Football MVP awards do?
Our kids need to be confident in themselves and know what they stand for. These character traits are learned, in part, through experiences like open play.
Imaginative vs. Passive Play
Imaginative play helps develop creativity and problem solving skills. Kids have to create their own characters, scenarios, use social skills, props, think through their actions, work through problems and figure out end results. They are practicing for adulthood while at play.
It is during these open play opportunities that our kids are learning important skills, such as sharing, taking turns, negotiating, following rules, solving conflicts, empathy, compassion, self-control, working with others and even how to host guests. Bottom line, imaginative play builds social skills and helps develops emotional health, something a video game and TV cannot do.
On the flip side, passive play hinders creativity by dictating how the toy is to be used. It leaves no room for thinking outside of the box or problem solving. Passive play usually says, “Check your brain at the door. It’s not needed here.”
So when you’re looking for a toy for your kid, ask “What will this allow my child to do?” and not “What can this toy do?”
Not only is an open play toy more likely to stimulate your child’s development, but it can spare your wallet too! Have you ever spent big bucks for the trendy toy you thought your child would fall in love with (or maybe the one he had relentlessly begged for), only to find it abandoned a few days later when the hype wore off? Or how about a Christmas or birthday where your little one had more fun with the packaging than with the toy itself?
Play may seem childish to older kids, but truth be told, we all want to play to some degree. So, for our kiddos that seem to think that play is beneath them, here are some things to encourage them to do:
Cooking or baking
Real carpentry or parts of the process with adult supervision
Going to a second hand store, buying a small appliance, taking it apart and putting it back together
Sports that require team work or learning a new skill
Learning a new outdoor activity
Bicycling, roller skating, swimming, climbing, skateboarding
Gardening and landscaping
Learning a new musical instrument
Writing and illustrating books
Card games and board games
All kinds of games with rules
Not only will they be getting a health benefit from doing some of these activities, but they will be learning new skills and feel a sense of accomplishment, which in turn builds self confidence. And who doesn’t want more of that for our kids?
In our world of screen overload, parents have a responsibility to be purposeful and create an environment that cultivates open play. So, give your child the freedom, space, materials and time to be bored and get creative.
Come Visit Us
If you’re interested in learning more about open play and how to choose great toys for your kids, tune into this Saturday’s episode of Parenting on Purpose with Jenni and Jody at 10AM (EST). We are broadcasting LIVE from our favorite neighborhood toy store. If you’re local to Sarasota, stop in and visit us at Children’s World (4525 Bee Ridge Rd.). We’d love to chat with you on air about your open play experiences!
You can also listen live on 1220AM or 106.9FM or 98.9FM. If you’re not local, just go to the WSRQ website and listen to the streaming broadcast or download the mobile app and listen on the go (they use Tune In Radio for that).