Play. It seems so simple. So obvious. Everyone knows children love to play, correct?…! So why not just let them play? That’s right…why not?!?!
In this day of limitless opportunities, classes, groups, lessons, and teams, it is so easy to forget to simply let children play.
Creative play is not really play at all…it is hard work. What looks like wild imaginings are really essential lessons, building a child who is inventive, smart, happy, flexible, and resilient. Creativity in children must be nurtured and stimulated by intentional activities, traditions, and toys. Uniqueness and independence shine through a child’s creativity. It says: “I can be; I can do; I am me!” Encouraging adventure and fostering creativity build within a child the ability for abstract thought; seeing new solutions to challenges and problems; seeing new methods and processes, seeing new beauties and wonders.
There is simply nothing better for the healthy development of a child’s imagination, love of learning, and unconquerable spirit than unlimited, unstructured creative play. Though “unlimited, unstructured” play seems to be exactly that…unstructured, unplanned, and effortless, it does in fact take some intentional effort on your part. With a bit of planning, perhaps a bit of rearranging, maybe a few purchases or purges, you can establish an environment that fosters, encourages, and nurtures creative play.
Before we get into the nitty gritty of what you may do in your own home to foster free and imaginative play among your children, let’s dip into the why. Why is play so crucial to the healthy development of children? Why do certain types of play have infinite worth to a child’s creative self?
Children are sponges. They are absorbing knowledge, information, skills, and ideas on all sides, all day, every day at super-human rates. It is truly magnificent, actually. This incredible absorption of information is critical, necessary, and natural to their development and growth. Whether through home life and natural living, home schooling, unschooling, brick and mortar schooling, or any other type of education, the absorption is constant. Little minds, though built for immense growth and learning, need a break. Regular breaks in fact. Breaks that enable those incredible little minds to sift, sort, and connect the information absorbed.
Free, unstructured, creative play is absolutely perfect for the percolating of new ideas and information. So often as I listen in (carefully…so as not to break the magic) to my daughter’s imaginative play, I hear her acting out stories we have read or discussed recently with her dolls, in her kitchen set, in her art making, while making people and places with blocks, Lincoln Logs, Legos, etc. She becomes one of the Merry Little Breezes laughing and playing in the “meadows” of the backyard with Jimmy Skunk and Reddy Fox from Thornton Burgess’s inspired stories. Lucy-doll was taught the importance of respect one morning as she prepared lunch and shared with another doll. Verbal musings about the sounds made when letters are “smushed” together come out seemingly unconsciously as she draws and creates.
This important process does not always make itself obvious, however. But it does happen. The mind of a child playing freely in her own world is hard at work…even if we can’t hear it. Have you ever watched a child play in the sandbox, lost in her thoughts, or run and dance through the yard feeling the wind in her arms and hair. Have you seen her sit among her blocks thick in the adventures of her mind. Truly watching children at play will always display little minds hard at work. It is a beautiful sight.
I highly recommend observing your child’s creative play. Independent creative play is something highly respected in our home. Since my daughter was quite young she has enjoyed a certain amount of independent play each day. I’m not sure if my son will desire it to the same extent, but it has certainly been an important part of her day. Though I respect her need for “alone time”, and keep my distance, I do enjoy listening in. It has really aided in my understanding of her thoughts, comprehension, and feelings. Though she is not one to keep her thoughts and feelings to herself, I have found this additional, and quiet, window into her personal world priceless. It is as if I can literally see the little gears of her brain sifting the facts, stories, and ideas she has recently absorbed. I can see those new ideas sorted into the numberless compartments of her mind and connected with current knowledge and ideas. This step…sifting, sorting, and connecting, is critical. Absolutely critical. And is facilitated beautifully by free creative play. As our family is still quite small, much of the creative play is independent…perhaps your home is filled with more little minds who play, adventure, and imagine together. Independent or cooperatively, unstructured play time is a matchless opportunity for little minds to play with all their new ideas.
Kahlil Gibran, the Lebanese poet, said,
“Forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the wind longs to play with your hair.”
To a child truer words have never been spoken. The earth, in all its wonders and delights, is pure magic to a child. It sparks the creative spirit and ignites the imagination in such a way that nothing can extinguish it. There is nothing that can replace free exploration and adventure, toes deep in sand and soil, hands filled with bits of nature, hair blowing and twisting in the breeze, and minds absolutely soaring. Creative play. There is simply nothing that can replace it. The earth delights in it, children delight in it. All we must do (literally) is open the door!
There are days however that outdoor creative play is not possible, or even desired. Environments can be created indoors that produce magnificent scope for the imagination. I think of family and friends living in (as my daughter calls it) “The Big New York City”, which requires a commute to a park to enjoy outdoor exploration and play in any grand scale. Perhaps your situation is similar. Or perhaps, like me, your children would spend the majority of every day outside and are feeling the pinch of so many bitter, bitter winter days that prohibit outside adventures longer than a few moments. These seemingly endless winter days that limit us most often to indoor adventures can offer no less opportunity for unstructured creative play. If provided with the right materials, environment, and patterning there is virtually no limit to their possibilities for play. Just think of all that sifting, sorting, and connecting!
Perhaps you feel like your children’s creative play time could use a boost. Perhaps your collection of hands-on materials isn’t providing the right spark for imaginative play. Creative play is going to look different in each of our homes. In fact, each of our homes and families themselves vary so widely it is strange to think that anything similar could apply to each. Some qualities of creative play are universal however … children are children, no matter where they live, after all.
Though unstructured creative play is indeed magical, it is not magic. It can be planned for, fostered, and easily incorporated into your daily rhythm. Believe me…you will be thankful for making any necessary changes to your cupboards, routines, or environments.
Think hands-on materials versus “toys”.
Think open-ended versus closed-purpose playthings.
Creative imaginative play requires few, but carefully, chosen materials. Open ended toys are toys that leave much to the imagination, and can be used in many different ways. Think wooden trains that can be set up differently each time and are pushed along by little hands. Blocks in all their varieties. Silks that become capes, robes, tents, etc. Kitchen sets. Legos. Simple dolls. Dollhouses, etc. While children are drawn to “push-the-button-watch-it-light-up-and-go” toys, that attraction is fleeting as such toys are closed-purpose, made to do one or very few things, while open-ended toys provide limitless opportunity for creative play.
Here is a list of some our favorite creative materials.
(in various sizes)
While I’m a huge advocate for toys made from natural materials, these little bits of plastic are a definite exception to that rule, and a huge favorite!
Pattern blocks, building blocks, and any other type of blocks teach so many lessons as they are played with in limitless ways. I have seen them become elaborate roadways, giant towers, city-scapes, caves, giant shooters (when the big boy cousins are around!!!), and doll beds. They are truly magical!
Silk is a wonderful and beneficial natural material for children to play with. However the concept of playing silks can be reproduced with other, possibly less expensive, materials. The idea is to provide a beautiful piece of cloth with good drape that can be used to transform characters and environments into new and different things in a marvelously open-ended fashion.
Dress-up Clothes and Mirror
An ever-changing supply of dress up clothes and a full – length mirror is a wonderful way for children to experiment with emotions and voices while taking on the personalities of real and imagined characters.
Sand, Water, Soil
There is no way to truly explain the magic of free exploration in sand, soil, and water. We also keep a bin of dried beans for scooping, pouring, measuring, and discovering on cold days.
Art making Supplies
Having a wide selection of quality art supplies available to children anytime inspiration strikes is extremely beneficial to children’s free expression and artistic development.
Miniature “Real – life” Objects : Kitchen set, etc.
Children learn so much through imitation and they love to have materials that are their own size. They thoroughly embrace the chores, responsibilities, and adventures of their “own” kitchen, nursery, and workshop.
Dollhouses, Wooden Train Sets, Village Sets, Castles, etc.
Each of the above materials provide another world for a child to create, enter, control, and thrive in. It is a chance for the imagination to truly soar, unlimited, and free.
This is not a comprehensive list. It is merely a dip into some of our favorite materials. I hope that it has opened your eyes to the possibilities of open-ended playthings. Open up your cupboards and reevaluate your supply of materials. Don’t be afraid to decrease the amount of “toys” available. Consider rotating materials you have chosen to keep to provide a more limited selection at a time. Quality is better than quantity in terms of hands-on materials.
While you evaluate your cupboards and shelves take a moment to evaluate the environments in which your children play. It is very simple to provide magical play places for your children with just a bit of simple rearranging. Children’s imaginations thrive in an environment free of restrictions and all their own. This is not to say children should have the run of the house…but they most definitely need places they can manipulate and create within. Outdoors, this may include a sandbox, a digging spot, a low shade tree with a few logs as seats or tables, nooks in the landscaping, and of course their own garden. Creating such free environments inside is a bit more tricky as a different order must be maintained there than outside. In our home we have found providing nooks for playing and imagining to be very effective. A bed sheet over the table, an island on the playroom rug, a kitchen set tucked into the corner, etc. Strive for the natural peace and quiet of an orderly home. Quiet from the overstimulation and noise of electronics, push-button toys, television, and just plain too much “stuff”… and instead filled with the natural noises of childhood. Strive for an environment in which children have the freedom of space for movement, and on in which order can easily be restored. “A place for everything and everything in its place”, provides children with clear and simple guidelines to help reestablish order after a glorious creative play time.
True education occurs when children play amongst beautiful things. It is their work. Their joy. Their right. It should also be ours. Creating an environment filled with a quality, limited, selection of hands-on materials, and a loving parent to initiate and guide the play process as needed is a crucial and beautiful responsibility. Enjoy!
Hannah Robinson is the mother of two very spirited children, and the wife of a very sensible man, living a very simple life in Western NY. She has a degree in art education and uses it daily as the artist in residence, and personal tutor for her kidlings. She is the author of the popular blog A Handmade Childhood where she chronicles the adventures of a family life centered on a quest for homemade, creative, tied-to-the earth goodness.