Kids are born with natural curiosity about their world and the desire to explore and learn. They have a drive to touch, taste and feel everything around them. This is how they learn. This is also how they get into trouble and we often find ourselves stopping them, redirecting them or even punishing them for their innate desire to explore. Just knowing that kids are born natural explorers is the first step in understanding how to support their development through play.
What is play and how does it differ from entertainment?
It is hands-on and the interest is created by the individual involved in the activity. Entertainment is created by someone else. It is passive. The individual watches or participates but is not responsible for the outcome. Why does this matter?
Kids who grow up participating in self-directed play are able to entertain themselves.
They do not seek out their parents when they are bored. They rarely become bored at all. They are able to turn a bush into a fort. They see blocks as an opportunity to create a new world. They look at any object as having limitless potential to become nearly anything at all.
Kids who grow up being entertained may lose touch with their imagination.
They become accustomed to the creativity and imagination of others. They wait to see how the movie will end. They enjoy the thrills of the roller coaster ride or the magic show. These are all a lot of fun, but they are all the result of the ideas of others. The child does not have to think, create or imagine any outcome. Everything has been done for her.
How to encourage natural play in your child?
Purchase simple, open-ended toys of every variety. Think about what a classroom would have: dolls, blocks, trains, animals, puzzles, books, art supplies, kitchen sets, costumes, clay, and instruments. When choosing family activities, avoid amusement parks, movies and pay-for-entertainment destinations. Instead, try to select activities that are simpler such as hiking, swimming, climbing trees, apple-picking, art fairs, outdoor concerts, working farms, sledding, picnics, camping and historic homes.
Don’t over-schedule your kids and don’t always play with them.
It’s important to spend time with our children, but as they get older, they need time to play alone or with friends without any adult directing them and without any structure. Allow them free time to choose their activities. Allow them to become bored. If they’ve grown up playing, versus being entertained, they will figure out something to do. The few times my kids came to me with a complaint of boredom, I told them I had plenty of work that needed to be done around the house. They quickly declined and found something else to do. Kids need to have those moments of boredom to think and create and problem-solve. This is preparation for adulthood.
Stop and smell the roses.
If you let your kids guide you in play, you’ll be on the right track. When you go for a hike, don’t just hike. Stop and investigate interesting rocks and trees. Climb a good tree. Jump into any tempting brook you find. Literally go off the beaten path. Skip stones at the lake. Play in the mud. Build forts. Pick dandelions and make wishes. Slide down grassy hills. Swing on the swings and make dams in the rivers. Become an explorer and an adventurer. You will literally reconnect with life. It’s exhilarating.
Let the world be your playground. Not only is it natural and healthy, it’s usually free. Your kids will learn to entertain themselves and maintain their natural love for learning. And maybe you’ll just have a little bit of childhood joy along the way, too!
What are your favorite activities with your children? Do your kids ever complain about boredom? How do you handle those complaints?