Back in November, we shared how children are using play to understand and process the pandemic. Enacting events through play is how children come to terms with change, which means that parents and caregivers can use this to their advantage in helping children process new situations.
Focusing on strategic free play methods, where the child takes the lead in structuring the type of play, can help parents guide children into this new phase of the pandemic, whether that means going back to school, engaging in remote education, or just adjusting to being back in the real world more frequently. Here are five free play tips for caregivers from the University of South Carolina play therapy professor Jessie D. Guest.
Get on children’s level
Caregivers tend to spend much of their time physically above children, but getting down on their level can help adults engage more actively in play. Sitting on the floor with children brings the adult into the child’s environment, puts you on their level, and creates more of a collaborative environment where both parties are taking part in the play.
Let the child take the lead
Structured play, like puzzles, games, and coloring books can be great for keeping kids entertained, but unstructured play where children are free to come up with their own inspiration for games allows for more creativity and reflection for kids. Simply ask the child what they feel like playing today and let them take the lead.
Children can tell when adults are truly engaged in play with them. Ask questions about the game and take a genuine interest in the game they have set out. This can look like making observations about a certain toy and asking how different play situations make them feel.
Free play doesn’t mean the child has free rein. If a child is displaying unacceptable behavior or acting out, acknowledge what they’re feeling and how this impacts their game. For example, if a child is throwing toys, remind them that this can be dangerous and you will have to find another way to play with the toys which is safer. If you find that a child repeatedly acts out in certain play scenarios, such as reenacting school, this could be indicative that they’re uncomfortable with that environment.
Children thrive with routine and stability. Try to set aside specific times during the week to engage in free play and if possible, designate an area of the home where children can play without restrictions. This can be a playroom with their toys or even a toy corner where they get to take the lead in play.
Unstructured play is critical for cognitive and emotional development in children. It teaches them creativity, problem-solving, and communication skills while helping them learn about boundaries and independence. As adults, it can be difficult to remember how to engage in silliness and play, but letting children take the lead and learning from their behavior will help you encourage healthy play and even learn more about your child.