Put “Play” On Your Check List

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I will never forget a hilarious babysitting moment, long before I had my own kids. It really helped give me insight into how children learn through play. The little boy and I were playing with stuffed animals, and as I animated my stuffed monkey, I could tell that the little puppet had really come alive for the boy. He spoke and reacted directly to the monkey, completely forgetting I was even there. At one point, the boy hit the monkey I was animating. Remaining in character, I stated, “I’m telling,” and proceeded to walk the monkey towards the door. The boy was so engaged in play that he had long forgotten my part in the monkey’s movements, believing the monkey was real. He panicked when the monkey began to head toward the door to tell on him, and quickly ran to the kitchen to grab an intelligent distraction. Then running after the monkey, the little boy offered the banana he had retrieved from the kitchen, in hopes of distracting the monkey from getting the boy in trouble. It was all I could do not to fall on the floor laughing at the boy’s creative intuition to offer the monkey a banana!

Recently as I was in conversation with a speech pathologist, she explained to me a major concern that had not occurred to me before. She was worried over how few of her clients were actually taking the time to “play” with their children. As adults, we tend to become consumed with tasks and lists we can check off. Play often seems idle and useless, as our minds continuously wander to the overwhelming mountain of chores we could be tackling. The truth is that there is nothing to show for “play” at the end of the day. For us, playing is more of a reward to be enjoyed after the work is done, and sadly many of us no longer consider it a necessary part of life. It’s almost as if the magic of our own childhood slips away as we get older.

It’s true – sitting on the floor for hours playing with our children cannot be physically showcased at the end of the day, like laundry, clean bathrooms, and dinner on the table. It’s hard to wrap our minds around the reality that the time we give our children does in fact build up over the years, and will one day “show” to be more important than all the laundry and chores we have ever done.    

For our children, their work is experienced and developed through their experimentation and interaction with the world around them. It’s up to us as parents to encourage their growth by giving their play the dignity of “work” as we see it. Another important element to consider is not wanting our children to grow up believing their worth is solely tied up in what they “do” rather than who they are. This is unfortunately a cultural and social norm that many adults find themselves battling. Suddenly we become our education, place in society, our accomplishments, employment positions, and what we have achieved. We often lose sight of what we contribute to the world and to one another through our unique gifts as individuals, and more importantly our eternal value in Christ.  

Play is crucial for our children’s social, emotional, physical, and cognitive growth. It’s constructive for the child in exploring the boundaries of the world around them and learning how to problem-solve. Children display empathy and other emotions through imaginary play, such as the little boy I babysat for “bribing” the monkey. This is not abnormal, nor does it mean he has a future in politics! Children often practice social cues in imaginary settings. They use manners with their toys, put band-aids on dolls, and show concern for a stuffed animal with a stomach ache. 

Parents can aid their child’s further development by helping to cultivate these proper emotions and social responses. Little ones are always watching their parents in order to learn from us. As they enter the toddler phase they begin to mimic us, often eliciting a good laugh at our miniature reflection in action. These are little opportunities to model the proper ways to complete a task, slowly walking through them at the child’s level and pace. And isn’t it fun to put songs and games to the completion of mundane tasks such as cleaning up?  

At the end of the day parents should be able to “check off” at least a half hour of “play” with their child. Put it on the check list if you have to, right between laundry and dinner. Pick up a stuffed animal and join the tea party, take a spot in the audience of the living room performance, become a medical doctor for the injured baby doll, or the trusty steed for your little cowboy!

What are the funniest moments you have experienced with children lost in “play”?    

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