play

  • Open-Ended Play: Its Value and Characteristics

    Open-Ended Play: Its Value and Characteristics

    Open-ended play

    “Go play!” Have you ever spoken these words to your child? Turns out you’re not being selfish – indeed, by urging your child toward open-ended play, you are looking out for his best interest. According to Jean Piaget, “Play is the work of childhood.” 

    Swiss scientist and developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, who died in 1980, educated the world as to the cognitive development of children. Piaget believed that children take an active role in the learning process, essentially performing experiments all day long.

    Like little scientists, they interact with the world, making observations as they go about their days.

    Children continually add to their knowledge of the world via these interactions, sometimes building upon existing knowledge or adapting previously held beliefs. Piaget held that, rather than being ‘little adults’, children have inherently different methods of thinking than adults.

    Furthermore, there are both qualitative and quantitative differences in the thought processes of younger versus older children.

    Based on Piaget’s theory of child development, and knowing that children learn EVERYTHING from their environment, what, exactly, should parents put in that environment? What should children play with?

    Toys Matter

    There’s certainly no shortage of toys available to purchase. Go to WalMart or Target, and you’ll be inundated with loud, colorful playthings at every price point.

    How about a doll? Or a drum set? What will your child learn from that – how will a doll impact your child’s development?

    Let’s talk about the best choices in toys.  This article isn’t a resource for buying specific toys, but rather it’s an explanation of open-ended toys, their purpose and value.

    We’ve all been the parent cleaning up after our preschooler’s birthday party. Gathering wrapping paper and packaging, plastic silverware and half-eaten, frosting-heaped cupcakes.

    Surveying the room, now filled with new playthings, we see our wondrous, already-gifted child, playing……..inside a box. THAT – that box – is an open-ended toy.

    Open-Ended Toys are Ideal

    How on earth, you wonder, could a cardboard box, whether open-ended or not, have more inherent play value than a scientifically-researched, state-of-the-art, $50 toy? WHY is my kid more attracted to that BOX than he is to this top-ten-parent-recommended plaything?

    Great question. The answer is perhaps less complicated than that cardboard box. One word: options.

    Open-ended toys have limitless options, while that $50 electronic keyboard has exactly one function – to play music. Valuable? Of course! What fun it is to play music! A keyboard will produce hours of melodic (read:noisy) fun…until it doesn’t.

    Either it breaks, the batteries wear out, or the child gets just plain tired of it. Or someone (not you – of course, not you) hides it.

    But the box? You will have to wrestle that box out of your kid’s hands.

    As in, literally have to throw it out when your child is out of the house.

    You may even resort to taking that box to your mother-in-law’s on trash day so that your kid doesn’t ‘rescue’ the box and bring it back into the house.

    So we’ve established that this box has lots of value as a plaything. What, exactly, is your child learning, developmentally, while playing with a box? What does open-ended play mean, anyway?

    Fine Motor Skills

    Ripping off the remaining wrapping paper and tape is great exercise for small fingers and hands. Perhaps your child will decorate the box using crayons or markers – maybe even paint. All of these activities strengthen those muscles that enable a child to hold a pencil, tie shoes, grasp a crayon, move a bubble wand, and zip a zipper.

    Gross Motor Skills

    Crawling, jumping and running through and around the box improve your child’s gross motor skills, as does balancing and mastering an obstacle course. Every time he climbs into or out of that box, he is getting stronger and more proficient at moving his body!

    Social-Emotional Development

    Your child might have siblings, and they might play with that box together. What a great opportunity to build social-emotional skills like working together, sharing, compromising, negotiating, empathy, sympathy, etc. It’s a BIG job to manage your own feelings! Inevitably, conflicts will arise – how will your child get through these conflicts? Will he talk, cry, whine, hit, or something else? Each time he navigates a disagreement, he learns tools for the future!

    Language/Literacy Skills

    Deeply connected to social-emotional skills, language skills are necessary for all of us to get through the day. We communicate verbally as well as non-verbally. Has this box suddenly turned into a bus? Through pretend play, your child will use language to test out new words relating to buses! Drive, horn, honk, exit, money, seat, etc. – what fun he will have trying out this new vocabulary! Language and literacy also refers to the written word, which might involve making tickets for the bus, or writing the name of the bus on the side of the box. Maybe your child will need a name tag because he’s the bus driver!

    Cognitive Skills

    Your child will be solving problems and making decisions in his own head before you hear one word of it! Where does his bus go? What’s that one song people sing about a bus!? Oh, yeah! ‘the wheels on the bus go round and round…’

    Does your child focus on creating his bus? Is he busy for thirty minutes solid before coming up for air? Or maybe he’s distracted by so many ideas at once. Open-ended play can be changed immediately by your child – with no adult help!

    Imagination

    This is where a box beats out a keyboard every time. On Tuesday, your child is ‘driving a bus’ with that box. By Thursday, the box has turned into a castle, and your child is the king. Your dog is a knight. Imagination has no limits.

    THAT is the value of a box – or, really, any open-ended toy. No amount of technology can do for the developing child’s brain what a box, a pile of clay, or a tub of wooden blocks can do.

    Tell your gift-giving friends, and remember this on your next visit to the toy aisle. You don’t need expensive toys – nor do you need a lot of toys. For engaging, self-directed learning to happen in your home, you need toys to encourage open-ended play.

    If you’re looking for more information about the importance of play and tips to reorganize your playroom check out my e-book: Simply Play: Everything You Need To Know About The Most Important Part of Childhood which you can buy here for only $4.99.
    If you like this post and want to read more like it then check out these articles:
    Outdoor Play: Why Does it Matter?
    Type of Play for Development
    100 Simple Things to do Outside With Your Kids
    Toy for Toddlers: Encouraging Active Play
    Top Toys to Encourage Outdoor Play
    7 Essential Playroom Spaces (and why you need them)
    The Power of Play
    What I’ve Learned about Early Childhood Education

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  • Top Outdoor Toys to Encourage Play

    Best Outdoor Toys for Kids

    The sun is finally shining where I live and I couldn’t be more pumped. 

    Yes, my kids go outside in all types of weather but it’s certainly easier to get them to stay outside without me for extended periods of time when the weather is more mild, the birds are singing and the hose is available for water play.

    Getting kids outside is so important for their physical, social and emotional health and making sure to have some awesome open ended and engaging toys specific for your outdoor playspace is crucial. 

    Here is a list of some of our top toys for outdoor play. Some are a little less traditional, but I promise you they allow for hours of fun.

    15 Must Have Outdoor Toys for Kids

    Our number one must have is a mud kitchen. What is a mud kitchen you ask? It’s an incredible outdoor kitchen space dedicated for children to play with dirt, rocks, sand, mud, water…

    It’s designed to to invite your children to play for hours–making mud pies or stone soup. You may need access to a hose to clean them afterwards, but the fun is well worth the mess. 

    We absolutely love this one by our friends over at The Monarch Studio. Not only is this a small mama run business, but her values closely align with ours and that makes supporting her even easier.

    She also makes a sensory table which is perfect for outdoor sensory play. The bins are interchangeable so you can easily switch from sand, to water, to rice, to whatever else you can dream up to throw into a sensory bin. She even sells rainbow colored rice!

    To add to your mud kitchen I recommend these awesome pieces of rock Play Food they encourage imaginative play, are super durable and are the perfect weight for little hands.

    Even if you don’t want to get a full on mud kitchen I suggest getting an Outdoor pots and pan set. They are a fun way to bring kitchen play to the outdoors.

    We always try to include our children in practical life skills and since we have a yard, that means yard work. We love this set of kids Gardening tools and have one for each kid.

    We recently got our kids this beautiful wooden Magnifying Glass and they love to use it outside to inspect bugs, grass, and flowers.

    A Kid sized wheelbarrow is a great addition for any kid who is interested in cars, trucks and things that go. It’s great for collecting sticks or helping move small rocks. We try to give the kids small jobs within the job we are doing in order to give them a sense of purpose and allow them to actually contribute to the task at hand.

    Another great outdoor toy for kids who are interested in trucks and digging is this awesome ride on digger. There is one with and without wheels depending on if you want this thing to be mobile, or not. 

    For some serious gross motor play add one of these scooters to your list, the Micro Kickboard with these little streamers is our favorite. It has an easy to adjust height, a break (but my kids still insist on just dragging their feet behind them to stop) and you can get accessories like bells and lights as add ons.

    Another gross motor toy to grab if you have any yard space at all is this Climbing dome. It does take some time to put together, but not because it’s difficult it’s just tedious. But so worth it.

    Kids can climb, jump, and hang upside down. If you have a large sheet you can let them throw that over the top to make a fort.

    If you want to actually give them some serious fort builder capabilities then get this Fort building kit there are so many amazing things kids can create with this thing–and added bonus is that building reinforces STEM concepts.

    Chalk is a staple of summer. I really love these Ooly ones because they are dustless and they are more similar to the look and feel of crayons. You can use them on such a variety of surfaces.

    I mentioned this in another article because I think it’s a must have for anyone who has a gutter and wants to keep their kids entertained for HOURS. This Rain barrel can easily collect water when it rains for kids to use for play.

    They love to turn the spigot on and off, and practice measuring and pouring. They use the water collected to make mud so we don’t have to waste water from the hose. It’s also a great way to reduce your water use if you water plants.

    I really love finding unique ways to encourage independence in my kids and these Walkie talkies allow me to do that. They love to take them out to talk to each other but it’s also a fun way for them to “call” for me (vs just screaming from the backyard).

    On a related note, if you’re in need of outdoor wheels to cart your kids to the beach, around town, over hilly grassy knolls or whatever other outdoor adventure youre taking on, consider getting a wagon instead of a stroller.

    The Veer and the Keenz are great options. We can fit all three kids and our puppy in our Keenz. We love it for the beach as a shady spot for the baby to nap, it even has a cooler.

    If you’re looking for more information about the importance of play and tips to reorganize your playroom check out my e-book:

    Simply Play: Everything You Need To Know About The Most Important Part of Childhood which you can buy here for only $4.99.

     

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  • The Power of Play

    The Importance of Play

    We take for granted the power that play has on our children’s growth and development.

    Often times parents are so focused on early academics, scheduling play dates, setting up Pinterest worthy crafts, enrolling their kids in organized sports, and entertaining them with flashy “educational” toys.

    It makes sense that many parents get sucked into this as this is what our society has come to place above free and unstructured play. 

    Play is HOW Kids Learn

    Play is actually HOW kids learn.

    It is how they develop the cognitive, social and emotional skills that allow them to succeed in all things. In a recent clinical report by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) titled “The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children” the abstract states play is “a singular opportunity to promote the social-emotional, cognitive, language, and self-regulation skills that build executive function and a prosocial brain.”

    So this concept is no joke.

    The American Academy of Pediatrics is actually having to PRESCRIBE AND ADVOCATE for play. 

    This is what the AAP is recommending pediatricians do:

    1. Advocate for the protection of unstructured play because of it’s proven benefits in the development of motor skills that have lifelong benefits (such as preventing obesity, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes)
    2. Advocate for educators to focus on play by allowing children to take the lead and follow their own curiosity
    3. Encourage educators to put a “premium” on building social-emotional and executive functioning skills
    4. Advocate for protecting recess time in schools

    Play Based Learning

    We have become so obsessed with “educating” our children; extending their school day, shortening their recess, increasing homework, signing them up for enrichment classes and organized sports, trying to provide them with endless stimulation and educational activities at home. Our society has forgotten that it is through play that children learn the process of learning.

    What is play?

    There are four basic types of play:

    Object play

    When children explore objects to learn about their different properties.

    Physical play

    Using and developing gross motor skills by doing activities such as running, jumping, wrestling, spinning and climbing.

    Outdoor play

    Play that happens outdoors and allows children to improve sensory integration skills

    Pretend play

    When children are experimenting with different social roles, including dress up, make believe and imaginary play.

    How much play do kids need?

    Okay so we know kids NEED to play. But how many hours a day should we be shooting for? An occupational therapist and author of one of my favorite books, Angela Handscom, says kids should be playing (ideally outside) for three hours a day.

    That may seem impossible, especially given all the other commitments we tend to take on during the week but it’s time to make play a priority for our kids.

    7 Tips for getting in those “play” hours

    Break up the time

    It doesn’t all have to be done at once. You can “schedule” play as you would any other activity. This may be needed if you are used to a very booked schedule of classes, mommy and me activities etc.

    Unschedule your time

    Instead of going to a scheduled activity invite a friend or two over. Don’t stress about finding people with kids the exact same age, in fact, mixed age play is great for kids development.

    Don’t hover

    Sit back and let your kids do the work. Enjoy a book, a conversation with a friend, do your nails….seriously anything but getting to involved in your kids play. You may feel guilty at first but they need time to engage in play without adults participating or directing.

    Get Outside

    Visit a local park, playground, hiking trail. You don’t have to have a specific activity planned–I guarantee your little one will be able to find things to do given the opportunity.

    Evaluate your play space.

    Is it conducive to independent play? Are your toys open ended?

    If you need help with this, book a virtual consult! 

    Get the right gear

    Read this to make sure you have the right gear to play outside in all kinds of weather.  

    Don’t let messes get to you (hard, I know!).

    One of the best pieces of advice I was given specifically about kids and messes was….”there is no mess that can’t be cleaned up.”

    And a note about messes, I generally enlist my children to help clean whatever mess they make so it’s a win win. They get to play and get messy without me freaking out, and I feel like they are being taught a valuable lesson in picking up after themselves and contributing to our household. 

    If you’re looking for more information about the importance of play and tips to reorganize your playroom check out my e-book:Simply Play: Everything You Need To Know About The Most Important Part of Childhood which you can buy here for only $4.99.
    If you like this post and want to read more like it then check out these articles:Type of Play for Development100 Simple Things to do Outside With Your KidsToy for Toddlers: Encouraging Active Play7 Essential Playroom Spaces (and why you need them)

    What I’ve Learned about Early Childhood Education

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  • Outdoor Play: Why Does it Matter?

    Outdoor Play is Important

    Research shows that the average American kid only spend 4-7 minutes outside playing vs the 7 plus hours of time spent a day in front of a screen. This lack of time outside in unstructured play (no, organized sports don’t count…) is detrimental to our kids.

    To their health, their happiness, their creativity, their attention spans, their social, emotional and academic skills. 

    In an article titled “Getting back to the great outdoors” published by the American Psychological Association they quote research that explains that “One of the most influential longitudinal studies, led by Cornell University environmental psychologist Nancy M. Wells, PhD, found that children who experienced the biggest increase in green space near their home after moving improved their cognitive functioning more than those who moved to areas with fewer natural resources nearby (Environment and Behavior (Vol. 32, No. 6).

    Similarly, in a study of 337 school-age children in rural upstate New York, Wells found that the presence of nearby nature bolsters a child’s resilience against stress and adversity, particularly among those children who experience a high level of stress.

    Benefits of Outdoor Play

    • Physically healthier kids (better immunity, less obesity, more physical strength)
    • Mentally healthier kids (less anxiety, less depression, better moods and sleep)
    • Increase in attention span and creativity
    • Increase in sensory specific skills
    • Stronger ability to collaborate with others, adapt to new situations, problem solve, and negotiate–all life skills that your child will NEED to be successful in the world beyond school

    The need for risky play

    Children have an innate need for risk taking–and some research indicates that children who are encouraged to take risks at a younger age are able to better manage risk once they have gained more independence (so think about when your child is older and you want them to be able to manage risk when you aren’t there to swoop in to save them).

    It also shows that lack of ample opportunity to take risks may increase fear, inappropriate aggression, and the ability to cope with stress. 

    All of which translates into increased anxiety–this article also notes that “anxiety disorders are the most prevalent mental disorder in children and adolescents and parental overprotection has been associated with increased rates.”

    What does risky play look like?

    Some ways you may see kids engaging in risky play are:

    • playing at heights
    • running at high speeds
    • using things in ways that aren’t intended (climbing the couch, going up the slide instead of down), rolling down hills, climbing rocks
    • walking on anything that requires balance
    • spinning in circles
    • jumping off anything and everything

    These are things we should be encouraging our kids to do.

    To read more about risky play check out the article “A Guide to Understanding Risky Play”

    A little dirt never hurt

    Pick up a copy of the book Dirt is Good: The Advantage of Germs for Your Child’s Developing Immune System by Jack Gilbert Ph.D. for a more detailed explanation of why I let my kids eat dirt (and gasp…I don’t always wash their hands after they have played in dirt even when they are about to eat).

    Basically, exposure to low level germs and microbes are actually good for your kids as they help the immune system build itself up (read this article for more immune system boosting tips).

    Professor Gilbert explains that “exposure to microbes prevalent in the great outdoors will establish a stronger, more robust immune system in young people.”

    So stop stressing about washing off every speck of dirt, let your kids eat food from the floor, and stop using hand sanitizer unless you’re in a pinch and near “real” germs like cold and flu viruses (even then warm soapy water is best!)

    There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.

    This is not just a great book, but a philosophy lived by many families in Scandinavian countries and other areas of the world where outdoor play is held in higher regard.

    From personal experience, I find it’s much easier to send my kids outside when I know they have all the right gear.

    The right rain suit and boots can allow kids to stomp in puddles for hours.

    Rain Gear

    Some of my absolute must haves for outdoor play include the OAKI rain suit which my kids wear outside even in torrential downpour and still stay dry. We typically wear base layers in the fall and spring as the OAKI suit is a thin waterproof material.

    We have tried both the Crocs rainboots and the Bogs rainboots.

    We prefer the bogs because they have a nice liner which makes them easy to slip on and because they are taller and are more flexible rubber.

    Base Layers (Layering)

    Baselayer just means the FIRST layer of clothing that is touching your skin.

    We mostly use merino wool as a base layer because the material is breathable, helps regulate body temperature and is a natural fiber.

    We love wool by Nui Organics and Sloomb because we wear a lot of wool year round, but if you just need a base layer you can get the Merino Kids thermal set by Simply Merino or these pajamas by Woolino.

    I also know a lot of moms who use fleece for warmth, which is the synthetic version of wool–it isn’t as breathable as wool but it is a great option and is typically less expensive. These are some good fleece options: The Rocky fleece thermals for girls and boys.

    Snow Gear

    For snow, we are LOVING our Patagonia Snow Pile one piece.

    My son has a little bit of a complex about gloves and really needs to be able to use his hands effectively otherwise he gets very frustrated.

    So we have tried a bunch of gloves and really love using these wool Melton Baby gloves underneath these POLARN O. PYRET waterproof shell gloves.

    What’s nice is you can use both of these separately or together depending on the weather.

    If your little one prefers a mitten style glove then you can get these waterproof shells and these merino mittens both by Polarn O. Pyret.

    For serious snow play we have been using, and loving, these Stonez Mitts. They cinch at the wrist and elbow and are super warm and SO easy to put on.

    As for hats I strongly recommend a baclava this like one from SmartWool, or a hat that pulls down over the ears.

    Our favorite snow boots are Bogs. I would recommend either the Bogs “Slushie” Snow boots or the Bogs baby waterproof boot. They are super easy to walk in and really protect their feet from the cold.

    I challenge you all to purposely send your kid outside to get dirty or play in weather you normally wouldn’t.

    Set up a water table and with a couple buckets of dirt and a shovel.

    Let them dig a hole for you to plant something with their bare hands (and don’t freak out when you see them then stick their dirty fingers in their mouth or their nose).

    Bundle them up and send them outside in the snow (watch them from the shelter of your house if you need to).

    Put on those rain suits and boots to stomp in puddles and run around in the pouring rain.

    Just get those kids outside. Every. Single. Day.

    If you want to join a really cool challenge, check out the 1000 Hours Outside Challenge!

    If you’re looking for more information about the importance of play and tips to reorganize your playroom check out my e-book: Simply Play: Everything You Need To Know About The Most Important Part of Childhood which you can buy here for only $4.99.
    If you like this post and want to read more like it then check out these articles:Type of Play for Development100 Simple Things to do Outside With Your KidsToy for Toddlers: Encouraging Active Play7 Essential Playroom Spaces (and why you need them)

    The Power of Play

    What I’ve Learned about Early Childhood Education

    Read More

  • A Guide to Keeping Kids Busy

    How to Keep Kids Busy

    Do your kids constantly complain about being bored? Do they always need you to play with them?

    With everything kids have access to nowadays, how could they possibly be bored? How could a child with every hot new toy under the sun have trouble playing?

    Parents seem to be dealing with this more and more frequently. And report it starting earlier and earlier in childhood.

    Just a few days ago a mom was posting that her 18 month old was bored and she didn’t know what to do to keep him busy.

    Earlier today I came across another mom of a 6 month old asking for ideas to keep him entertained–expressing that she had “done” everything she could think to do for him.

    And that right there, friends, is the problem.

    So let’s talk about this whole idea of keeping kids busy. In theory this is well intentioned, but in practice it is deeply flawed.

    Children don’t need to be, nor should they be, hovered over or have every minute of the day perfectly choreographed.

    Giving the Gift of Boredom

    Unfortunately, hyper focus on our children has left our kids incapable of dealing with any lull in stimulation and hindered their ability to play independently.

    We forget that it is not our job as parents to “keep our kids busy” or “keep them entertained.” In fact, doing so directly impacts their ability to do these things for themselves.

    Our job is to provide a safe space with access to open-ended toys, art supplies and books and leave them alone. They will entertain themselves.

    The problem is that many children haven’t been given the gift of boredom.

    Boredom is what gives children the time to figure out what makes them happy, and allows them to develop skills like creativity, imagination, self-reflection, patience, and independence.

    Shifting Our Mindset: Do Less to Do More

    So for all the parents wondering how to keep their children busy during this time, I encourage a shift of mindset.

    Do less to do more.

    Children of all ages are capable of much more than we believe them to be.

    Don’t think about how to “keep them busy” instead find ways to encourage them to be independent by providing open ended toys that allow for more active play.

    Tips to Encourage Kids to Independent Play

    Minimize the amount of stuff you have out for your kids. If you are overwhelmed by the amount of toys out, imagine how they feel. 

    As a general rule, stay away from standard plastic and toys that light up, make noise, or talk. These types of toys can actually hinder play for children because they take away the need for imagination and creativity.

    Remember that the more a toy does, the less your kid has to do.

    Play is the work of the child so keep in mind the 90/10 rule when evaluating toys. That means a toy should do no more than 10 percent of the work.

    You want your child doing the thinking, visualizing, and creating.

    If you want some specific toy recommendations you can check out this post.

    Educational Toys Don’t Encourage Learning

    Many of the most common toys today actually take these opportunities away from kids. And while they are often labeled as educational, they don’t actually teach your child anything but how to be entertained by something else–leaving them wanting more and more.

    How many times has your child loved a bright shiny new toy, only to be over it after a few days or weeks. This is because the toy has done all it can for them, and they are looking for their next fix of stimulation.

    If they aren’t given enough time to rely on themselves for stimulation, you end up with kids who constantly need someone (you) or something (a new toy, activity, device) to keep them busy. It’s a pretty vicious cycle with pretty deep consequences.

    The Solution to “Keep Kids Busy”

    So the solution is pretty simple. Stop spending all your time trying to keep them busy and they will stop needing you to keep them busy. Trust in their ability to deal with their own discomfort (and don’t let their discomfort be yours).

    One of the best things you can do for your child is to let them figure things out for themselves.

    If you’re looking for more information about the importance of play and tips or reorganize your play space check out my e-book:Simply Play: Everything You Need To Know About The Most Important Part of Childhood which you can buy here for only $4.99.

    If you like this post and want to read more like it then check out these articles:7 Essential Playroom Spaces and Why You Need Them

    How to Continue Your Child’s Education During School Closures

    5 Tips for When School is Closed

    Understanding Schema Play

    The Power of Play

    The Ever Growing Importance of Outdoor Play.

    Toy for Toddlers: Encouraging Active Play

    100 Simple Things to do Outside with Your Kids

    Read More

  • The Importance of Mixed Age Play

    The Importance of Mixed-Age Play

    Children playing only with others of their own age is a relatively new concept. This idea of separating children by age has been made increasingly stark through our current (yet completely outdated) education system.

    Throughout most of human history, children played with other children in multi-age groups. Our society has swung so far to the extreme that it is rare to be able to find activities that are open for children of mixed ages, and often you don’t see children of various ages groups playing together unless they are family.

    This is an unfortunate trend. Mixed-age play (and mixed-age schooling) has been shown, through various studies, to have a variety of significant benefits to children of all ages.

    Some of the benefits for children who play with or attend class with a mixed age group show better moral reasoning and more rapid cognitive development, including an increased ability to understand literacy and numeracy concepts that would traditionally be considered beyond their level. It can also increase social and emotional awareness.

    Dr. Peter Gray notes, “Even when they are not playing together, younger children learn from older ones by watching and listening. They see older children climbing trees or solving puzzles, for example, and then they want to do that, so they work at it by emulating the older children’s actions.” In fact, from his research, he asserts that children are much more likely to learn from children who are a little older than them than from adults.

    The benefits are not just for the youngest of the group. Mixed-age play allows the older child to assume a greater sense of responsibility and practice nurturing in real time. They show a better sense of maturity and develop leadership qualities that can only be learned through actual experience with leading others. Being around younger kids allows them to play teacher and act as role models. It is often through these types of relationships that they develop a better sense of empathy, a stronger ability to compromise and collaborate, and a sense of empowerment to solve more complex problems or navigate unique social situations.

    Research across different cultures has shown that older children who have more contact with younger children tend to be kinder–and not just kinder to younger children but kinder to others overall.

    When children play together in mixed age groups, they are constantly adjusting their behavior to meet the needs of the various ages in the group. They will change how they speak, how they act, and what they expect from others. Little ones who would often have a hard time regulating their emotions might see the older kids dealing with similar disappointments and mimic how they are handling the situation. Older kids, who might normally exhibit behaviors inappropriate for younger kids, will step up because they understand the importance of being a role model.

    Given that our current society often very strictly segregates children by age, it is important for parents and caregivers, as well as places like daycares, nursery schools, and enrichment classes, to move to provide more opportunities for children to spend time with others of different age groups.

    If you’re looking for more information about how play to connected to learning check out my e-book:

    Simply Play: Everything You Need To Know About The Most Important Part of Childhood which you can buy here for only $4.99.

    If you like this post and want to read more like it then check out these articles:

    Type of Play for Development

    Guarding our Children’s Mental Health

    The Ever Growing Importance of Outdoor Play

    Toy for Toddlers: Encouraging Active Play

    7 Essential Playroom Spaces (and why you need them)

    The Power of Play

    What I’ve Learned about Early Childhood Education

    100 Things to do Outside with Your Kids

    30 Ideas to Get Your Kids to Play Outside

    Read More

  • 5 Steps to Create a Space That Encourages Independent Play

    Spaces Designed for Independent Play

    One of the biggest issues parents are experiencing right now is trying to keep kids entertained and busy while also working from home.

    The best recommendation is to think about it in terms of “how can I encourage independent play or learning” and NOT “how can I keep my kids busy and entertained.”

    This shift in mindset will allow your kids to develop important skills, while also keeping them engaged for longer stretches of time so you can actually get something done.

    *I type this as my four year old sits next to me pushing my arm away from the keyboard every few minutes.*

    Here are a few simple tips that can help you organize your space so that your kids can play more independently, allowing you to *hopefully* be more productive.

    Minimize the amount of toys available

    Research shows that the kids with fewer toys have better quality play; often engaging in more creative and imaginative play. When kids are given less options (this study had kids getting four toys, and kids getting sixteen toys) they played for significantly longer periods of time. Having too many toys (or anything for that matter!) is a distraction.

    Think about how stressed you feel when you see so much “stuff” everywhere–you don’t know where to look, or what to do, it’s totally overwhelming.

    It’s the same for kids. You want to focus on providing fewer but more open ended toys that will encourage more active and imaginative play.

    If you’re looking for toy recommendations, check out my must have toys for toddlers.

    Open ended toys

    The types of toys you have available for your kids directly impacts the quality of their play. It’s best to have more open ended toys as this will promote more active and engaged play. Open ended toys are toys that can be played with in a variety of ways. They are simple and are typically the toys you have seen stand the test of time.

    That talking Elmo that lights up and dances? Popular for one holiday season (and really obnoxious).

    Building blocks. Pretty much popular since the dawn of man in some form or another.

    Toys have a significant influence on how children develop physical, social, emotional and cognitive skills. The key is to stay away from standard plastic toys, especially toys that talk, light up, move, or engage in any other way with your child. Anything with batteries should be cause for a pause.

    Keep in mind that the more a toy does, the less your kid has to do. The general rule of thumb is that a toy should do no more than 10 percent of the work. This leaves your child to do 90 percent of the work. If you want your child to play independently they need access to open ended toys.

    Organize in a way that makes sense to a child

    When organizing your space think about how you can provide easy access to the toys that will promote play.

    For example, we keep things like smaller legos, puzzles and board games higher up because my kids can’t do the entire process from start to finish by themselves.

    However, blocks, trucks, and pretend play items are easily accessible.

    Think about how tall your child is and try to keep items at or below that height. That way they do not need you to help them get a toy–which also means they don’t need you to put that toy away.

    Also, in terms of storage–open shelving and baskets work best vs closed bins (even labeled!), drawers or toys boxes. You want children to be able to see everything that’s available to them.

    Make it a “yes” space

    One of the best ways to make your life easier is to find a way to create a “yes” space for your kids. Make sure everything in this space is a “yes.” That means there is literally not a single thing that your kid could get into that would be an issue.

    Think about safety, but also about ability to access toys or other needs. Anticipate what they could ask you for, and find a way to make it available to them so they can do things for themselves.

    This gives you peace of mind knowing there isn’t anything they can get themselves into that is a huge deal and will allow them to play for longer periods of time without needing you.

    Away from adults

    Yes. AWAY from adults. Kids need space. They need to be left alone to play and immerse themselves in play.

    If your child isn’t used to playing in this way, or does not have access to open ended toys, this might be more difficult. It will take time for them to re-learn how to play independently and they may come to you with a thousand questions or want you to engage in play with them.

    Resist the urge to do this–set boundaries and find ways to “push” their questions back to them. I try not to even provide my kids with ideas for play–I just tell them “go play!” and they whine (sometimes because they want to be with me) and I repeat “go play!” You are not responsible for entertaining your child all day. Play is their job.

    If you’re looking for more information about the importance of play and tips or reorganize your play space check out my e-book:

    Simply Play: Everything You Need To Know About The Most Important Part of Childhood which you can buy here for only $4.99.

    If you like this post and want to read more like it then check out these articles:

    7 Essential Playroom Spaces and Why You Need Them

    How to Continue Your Child’s Education During School Closures

    5 Tips for When School is Closed

    100 Positive Things Parents Are Experiencing Right Now

    Understanding Schema Play

    The Power of Play

    The Ever Growing Importance of Outdoor Play.

    Toy for Toddlers: Encouraging Active Play

    100 Simple Things to do Outside with Your Kids

    Read More

  • Invitations to Play: A Misunderstood Concept

    The Often Misunderstood Concept of “Invitations to Play”

    Building off the concept of schemas is the idea of creating invitations to play. Simply put, an invitation to play is when an adult arranges toys in a way that is meant to spark a child’s interest. This is an amazing way to introduce new toys or get your child to expand their play by providing them with opportunities to make connections between toys they may not have seen for themselves.

    But there seems to be a fairly common misunderstanding about the purpose of invitations to play. This concept is directly derived from the Reggio Emilia philosophy of early childhood education. Reggio Emilia really focuses on following the child’s interest and using the environment as a third teacher. The materials provided in the child’s environment are meant to encourage exploration and spark interest without needing direction from adults.

    This concept has made its way from Reggio-inspired classrooms to the everyday parent who is looking to spark their child’s imagination. There are blogs, Instagrams, and Pinterest boards solely dedicated to giving moms ideas for invitations to play. And that’s great. However, I think it’s important to note a few things.

    I see moms constantly looking to get ideas for invitations to play. Sometimes they seem stressed because they “can’t think of anything” or they are focused on providing their kids the perfect setup. I think that the concept behind creating invitations to play has gotten a little lost. First, you don’t NEED to be doing this on a daily basis. In fact, you don’t need to be doing it at all for that matter. You child is perfectly capable of creating their own scenes for play if left alone with their imagination. That said, I understand wanting to–maybe it brings you joy or you appreciate the way it allows your kids to play with things that might not always be top of mind for them. That’s amazing. You’re crushing it…

    If you want to stay true to the Reggio philosophy, I would encourage you to keep in mind that creating invitations to play is best done when you’re observing the schema (or schemas) that your child is really focused on in the moment and using that knowledge to create simple setups that build on their chosen focus. The idea is to follow the child.

    AND…Don’t stress if this is not your thing (it’s not really mine!).

    You can get TONS of ideas off Instagram and Pinterest, just PLEASE don’t beat yourself up over not being able to create picture-perfect invitations to play every day. I promise your little one will survive.

    If you’re looking for more information about the importance of play and tips to reorganize your playroom check out my e-book:

     Simply Play: Everything You Need To Know About The Most Important Part of Childhood which you can buy here for only $4.99.

    If you like this post and want to read more like it then check out these articles:

    Understanding Schema Play

    The Power of Play

    The Ever Growing Importance of Outdoor Play.

    Toy for Toddlers: Encouraging Active Play

    100 Simple Things to do Outside with Your Kids

    What is Montessori–Understanding this Early Childhood Education Philosophy

    Reggio Emilia — A Child Centered Learning Approach

    What is Waldorf — A Spotlight on Waldorf Education

    Read More

  • Understanding Schema Play

    Following the Child

    The importance of early childhood education is well-established and reaches well beyond the preschool years. In fact, “early childhood” is considered birth to eight years old–so approximately 2nd or 3rd grade.

    This time period is crucial for children. I’d even go so far as to say more crucial than post-secondary education. Why? Because how and what they learn during this time period will provide them with a foundation for the rest of their lives.

    Education during these early years will help shape social, emotional, and physical health, as well as develop intrinsic motivation for lifelong learning–not just learning to get a grade.

    With that in mind, the basis of any early childhood education philosophy should be to follow the child. So, what does this look like?

    It starts with newborns. From the time they are infants, we should be letting our children develop at their own pace, not forcing them into sitting or standing positions before they are ready, and observing what things make them feel safe and content–and providing those experiences.

    When they are toddlers, it means encouraging their natural curiosity and providing them with a variety of opportunities to connect with people, places, and things around them.

    As preschoolers, it means following their interests and not forcing them into learning concepts in order to “prepare them for school.”

    As young children, it means allowing them ample free time to pursue their passions–not signing them up for activities because it will “look good” or because it’s something you always wanted for yourself.

    In order to better understand your child’s development, it’s important to be aware of the concept of schema.

    Understanding Schemas

    Schemas are patterns of repeated behavior that allow children to develop an understanding of the world around them through play and exploration. Schemas are mental models or processes that we create by trial and error through experiences.

    Kids are the perfect example of how we build schemas. They are constantly testing out concepts. You can easily notice these patterns of behavior in older infants and toddlers. Things like banging, pulling, pushing, and spinning are all examples of schema play.

    Some of the most common schemas in young children are:

    Connecting and Disconnecting

    Children in this schema can be seen doing activities such as building train tracks, working with puzzles, joining things, lining toys up, or taking lids on and off. With this type of play, your child is trying to figure out how things fit together.

    Ways to support this schema: Train tracks, roadway building, construction materials, building materials that “fit together” like LEGO® or blocks. Even things such as tape, string, and velcro can be used to support kids within this schema.

    Orientation

    Playing in this schema involves things like swinging upside down, sitting in a chair the “wrong” way, and turning toys around to see things from different angles. This is children trying to figure out how the world looks through different points of view.

    Ways to support this schema: Mirrors, magnifying glasses, binoculars, climbing structures that allow them to climb or hang upside down.

    Transporting

    Kids who enjoy moving things from one place to another either use their hands or some sort of toy that can be filled, moved, and usually dumped. Children gain a sense of independence and responsibility when transporting items so you may find them eager to help you do chores that involve bringing something from point A to point B–like unloading groceries or moving clean laundry into the dryer.

    Ways to support this schema: Stroller or grocery cart, small boxes that can be easily picked up by little hands, a little backpack or pretend purse. Loose parts are also great in this schema because they are perfect for being loaded, moved, and unloaded over and over. A few pots filled with water or sensory bins that allow for kids to move things from one pot or bin to another are also good ideas for encouraging play within this schema.

    Trajectory

    This is a common schema that is focused on how things move. Children in this schema are studying how objects (or their body) move through the air. Remember your little one who constantly threw food off their highchair? They were learning about trajectory! Other activities that are a part of this schema are playing with running water, running, playing tag, throwing a ball, sliding down a slide (or watching how different objects slide down a slide).

    Ways to support this schema: Plenty of outdoor time and free space to run, throw things, pour water, send items down slides, or drop things from high places.

    Positioning

    Children working in this schema enjoy things like making patterns, lining up toys, ordering things in sequences. They will often spend a good amount of time trying to make things just right.

    Ways to support this schema: Loose parts that can be used to make patterns like the Grapat mandala pieces, small cars, or dolls.

    Enveloping

    This schema is all about wrapping things up. You may see them wrapping themselves in a blanket, wanting to put items in boxes, or swaddling their baby doll.

    Ways to support this schema: Give them plenty of blankets, pillows, silks, boxes, and anything else that allows them to cover and uncover themselves or their toys. Things like nesting bowls are also good for this schema.

    Enclosing

    This is similar to enveloping but more about creating a boundary. So for example, children working in this schema will create forts or make a fence for their farm animals. This schema is about containment.

    Ways to support this schema: Give children items to use to build forts (we love the Nugget®), large boxes, blocks that can be used to create a fence or boundary in some way.

    Rotation

    This schema involves anything that goes in a circular motion and can rotate. Things like wheels, washing machines, merry-go-rounds, and spinning around in circles are all a part of the rotation schema.

    Ways to support this schema: Provide your child with plenty of opportunities to play with streamers, spinning tops, and toys that have wheels. Household items like screwdrivers and nuts and bolts are also good for encouraging this schema.

    If you’re looking for more information about the importance of play and tips to reorganize your playroom check out my e-book:

     Simply Play: Everything You Need To Know About The Most Important Part of Childhood which you can buy here for only $4.99.

    If you like this post and want to read more like it then check out these articles:

    The Power of Play

    The Ever Growing Importance of Outdoor Play.

    Toy for Toddlers: Encouraging Active Play

    100 Simple Things to do Outside with Your Kids

    What is Montessori–Understanding this Early Childhood Education Philosophy

    Reggio Emilia — A Child Centered Learning Approach

    What is Waldorf — A Spotlight on Waldorf Education

    Read More

  • Kids Need Risky Play

    Risky Play

    Children have an innate need for risk-taking. In addition, children who are encouraged to take risks at a younger age are able to better manage risk once they have gained more independence. A lack of ample opportunity to take risks may increase fear and inappropriate aggression, as well as limit the ability to cope with stress. All of this translates into an increase in physical and mental health issues, particularly in children.

    What is Risky Play?

    To begin, risky play isn’t synonymous with dangerous play. For many adults, risky play is what we became accustomed to as young people. This was before fear became an all too present element in parenting.

    Remember riding your bike alone or exploring the creek in the neighborhood park? These are normal, everyday activities that children should experience. Today, however, children are experiencing risky play less and less often.

    Some ways you may see kids engaging in risky play are:

    • playing at heights
    • running at high speeds
    • using things in ways that aren’t intended (climbing the couch, going up the slide instead of down)
    • rolling down hills
    • climbing rocks
    • walking on anything that requires balance
    • spinning in circles
    • jumping off anything and everything

    In addition, risky play is often unstructured. This means that the child is free from direct adult supervision. Of course, if you have a young child engaging in risky play, you may still be at the park or in the home nearby, but you are letting them climb, explore, and build without fear or retribution. Risky, unstructured play gives the child a chance to explore, imagine, and self-regulate in a way that structured, adult-initiated play does not.

    Although risky play can happen indoors, so much of positive risky play happens outdoors. In a world dominated by screen time and personal devices, I am a huge advocate of getting our kids outside to experience nature! Rain, snow, or sunshine, outdoor play with risky elements helps children engage in imaginative exploration.

    Research on Risky Play

    Dr. Peter Gray writes in his book Free to Learn, “Over the past 60 years we have witnessed, in our culture, a continuous, gradual, but ultimately dramatic decline in children’s opportunities to play freely, without adult control, and especially in their opportunities to play in risky ways. Over the same 60 years we have also witnessed a continuous, gradual, but ultimately dramatic increase in all sorts of childhood mental disorders, especially emotional disorders.”

    Gray’s findings come from the study of a school, Sudbury Valley, that focuses on the philosophy of student ownership and community responsibility of learning. Ultimately, the students design their own learning path. Grade levels and formal courses are not part of the Sudbury way. In fact, risky play and exploration is encouraged. Gray sees the result as students that are more resilient, independent, and able to navigate the world after their school years.

    Parental (Over)-Involvement

    Today, parents are often seen hovering over kids at the playground, or even worse, following them up into the playground equipment. Parents aren’t necessarily doing this to play with their child but to make sure they don’t fall or get minor bumps and bruises. “Helicopter parenting” isn’t necessarily new, but it seems like it’s becoming the norm rather than the exception. This also means many children aren’t scaling rocks and climbing trees anymore. They aren’t jumping from heights that are just a little too high. Our kids aren’t taking risks!

    Funny enough, injuries haven’t decreased. In fact, it’s been quite the opposite. Why? Children are not testing their bodies enough. They are more likely to get hurt because they are grossly unaware of their physical limits.

    We need to shift our mindset. These are things we should be encouraging our kids to do. Take a breath, step away from the top of the slide, and let them take healthy and age-appropriate risks. As Gray states in his 2014 Psychology Today article, “Play, to be safe, must be free play, not coerced, managed, or pushed by adults.”

    Benefits of Risky Play

    When children are allowed to engage in risky play, it gives them a chance to expand their imagination. For example, building a fort out of couch cushions and furniture that a child may climb over and under can open a world of story-telling, building, and all-over imaginative play!

    The power of play itself simply can’t be disputed. Play is the basis for how young children learn. By encouraging risky, unstructured play, children develop physical and mental skills that build imagination, resilience, and physical endurance.

    Gray also states that risky play allows children to experience a healthy sense of fear. When adults do not allow kids to engage in risky play, they are unable to experience self-regulation and understand what their limits are.

    Besides just being plain fun, risky play gives young people a chance to build resilience, fear, strength (in spirit and physicality), and experience a world of imagination. It’s time for adults to remember what it was like to be young again when risky play was a normal part of our everyday lives! Let your kids play, set some appropriate boundaries, of course, but let go a little bit to let them experience risky play.

    If you’re looking for more information about the importance of play and tips to reorganize your playroom check out my e-book:

    Simply Play: Everything You Need To Know About The Most Important Part of Childhood which you can buy here for only $4.99.

    Read More