A few weekends ago at a homeschool conference, I was privileged to hear a talk by Peter Gray, research professor of psychology at Boston College--and the author of one of my favorite education blogs. I had to duck out early due to a family concern, but not before I learned about a troubling trend: research has shown a steady increase in childhood anxiety and depression as opportunities for free play and expression have declined. Historically, kids have learned through self-directed interactions with their world. Is it possible that keeping them constantly busy with adult-directed activities contradicts their nature? Could we be unintentionally harming our children's emotional wellbeing?
With this fresh in my mind, I cannot bring myself to highlight structured activities. This week, I will not describe any specific project. Instead, here are some suggestions for facilitating child-directed play. Set up the opportunity, then sit back and marvel at where your child's imagination will go.
Playing with Light
If you haven't checked out Play at Home Mom, I highly recommend it. These moms share all sorts of fun activities to expose your kids to new sensory experiences. One tool they often use is a light box or light panel. The simplest DIY version simply consists of a string of white Christmas lights inside a clear storage bin. You can see that light box, along instructions for a more complex version, at their website. Kids can use a light box with all sorts of small items; transparent or translucent items work really well. You might set out transparent building blocks, colored films, or jars of colored water. Now, you might ask "Isn't this activity parent-directed?" Not really. The moms lay out the activities in a way that attracts the childrens' attention--they call it an "invitation"--then they allow the kids room to experiment.
Busy bags contain small, self-contained activities to occupy toddlers. Some activities may be more structured, such as tracing letters or matching colors. There's nothing wrong with that, but since this post focuses on child-directed play, I'll share a few of the more open-ended ideas:
- About 20 twist ties in a small bottle: Kids can twist them, straighten them, build sculptures, or drop them one-by-one into the bottle.
- Face feature magnets: Clip pictures of various facial expressions from magazines or from the Internet, stick them to magnetic sheets, and cut out. Store them in a small tin. Kids canuse them to make all sorts of silly faces.
- Velcro shape sticks: Attach small pieces of velcro to the ends of several craft (popsicle) sticks. The original idea has you color code the sticks to form specific shapes. For a more freeform version, Iwould skip that part and let kids build whatever they can imagine.
- Play dough and small cookie cutters.
- Colored pasta or beads and string or pipe cleaners to string it on.
These are nice because you can throw them into your purse or diaper bag and pull them out at times when your toddler must sit and wait (at a restaurant, for example). The activities allow your toddler's mind to wander and play, even when his body cannot. If you really want to encourage free play, take two or three activities along and let your child choose one.
Create Your Own Fantasy Land
With a few items from around the house, your child can create an imaginative setting for pretend play. Legos, boxes, or blocks become buildings. Use other household items to complete the landscape. A shallow bowl could make a lake or an oatmeal can a cave. Your child can act out any number of scenarios in his fantasy land using toy cars, animals, people. (This is one of many great ideas from Kathy Eugster. See the rest at her website.)
Older Child (10+)
Media seems to have an undeserved bad reputation when it comes to free play. But not all screen time is created equal. In fact, technology opens up all sorts of new creative avenues for kids to explore. Both Carnegie Mellon and MIT have developed simple programming languages (Alice and Scratch, respectively) especially for young people. Kids and teens can create their own interactive stories, simple computer games, and more. Programming not your child's thing? Maybe she'd like to produce a video. Set her loose with a cheap video camera, then allow her to edit the footage on the computer. Both Windows and Mac operating systems come standard with a video editor.