How Do I Teach Play?
I believe that play is something children learn. They learn play by modeling during Onlooker Play. The modeling can be by siblings, parents or other children. Sometimes that modeling comes from life experiences for example; cooking in the kitchen, going to a Pick Your Own Produce farm, or taking a ride on a bus. Play can also be learned from direct modeling. This is when someone sits down and plays with them, showing the child exactly what to do without them noticing that is what you are doing.
Think of a playing a board game with a small child- you cannot give them the game and expect them to play correctly. Reading the directions is usually not enough either. You must play the game with the child reminding them of the directions while playing.
The same must be done with toys. Most parents think a toddler can pick up a toy and know how to play. That is just not the case. Take the Fisher Price Little People Barn. I have seen people give that to toddlers and walk away expecting the toddler to play with the pieces and not understanding why their child cannot do this. Young toddlers do not necessarily have the skills to do this. They might pick up the pieces, look at them, push the buttons, etc. Then what? They do not know what to do next so they move on to the next toy and do the same thing. Parents think the kids need a lot of toys to occupy them. If they have been to a farm and seen it in action they might have an idea of what to do next. Do they know what farmers do on a farm? Do they even know what a barn is used for? Have they had stories read to them about farms? Do they know the animals on a farm and the name of those animals? Taking the time to sit and model playing for a few minutes can provide years of fun with that toy and with play.
Teaching Play through Onlooker Play- A Barn: Pull out the barn and set up the animals. Talk out-loud as you play to model what you are thinking for your child. "I am the farmer and I have to feed the animals when I wake up. Next, I am going to milk the cows- (squirt sound with your mouth like the sound of the milk hitting the pail). Now I have to clean out the barn. I am tired I need lunch. After lunch I will sheer the sheep." Etc... (Of course you do this with detail and not in a boring way. Use enthusiasm in your voice.) Do not be surprised if your child grabs the cow out of your hand as you say you are going to milk the cow. Milking the cow sounds fun, your toddler wants to do it. Just grab another animal and do something else with that animal. Even if it is Onlooker Play your child might jump in and try something out. Great! We are not going to worry about teaching sharing, grabbing, taking turns at this time. Pick your poison and stick to one goal at a time. You want them to be excited about play, let them join in or even better yet, take over!
Parents have told me either they cannot remember how to play or they just do not enjoy it so how can they teach their children?
Part of the problem for not enjoying play is that our minds are elsewhere. We have so much to think about and worry about that we are constantly distracted. I get it, I feel the same way! But, that does not have to be the case, we do not have to let our worries consume us. Playing with a toddler is not an all day event. Taking the time to model play is a relatively short activity. Their attention span and desire to have onlooker play is short. If you can commit to unplug for 10 minutes a day your children can learn to play. Before the age of 4 or 5 they really do not want to play with another person but rather next to a person. Spending 10 minutes modeling play will satisfy their desire to have you near and teach them an activity. After that 10/15 minutes they generally do not want you to play with them or their toys, but rather just be sitting close by then you can check your messages, pick up the phone or clean up.
A hard part for parents is remembering how to play for themselves. We are adults after all and it has been a while since we have played as a child, let alone a toddler. Here are a few ideas of where to start.
1. A good place to start is with the toys they have. Look around, what do you see? Dinosaurs? Kitchen? Farm? Blocks? Trucks? Dolls? Grab the blocks and start making a tower. Then try to expand from that tower into a castle. Pull an action figure out and make that the king. Nothing has to be highly involved, just start very basic. The King goes into the kitchen to eat supper. Anything goes- no rules.
Go back to the first toy you modeled for a couple days and try to reenact what you did the first time and maybe add to it. This helps cement how to play with that toy. Do not worry about squelching their imagination, toddlers are self-centered. If they want to play with the toy another way, they will! They might even tell you that you are doing it wrong if they have an idea how something should be done.
2. Another idea is to think of what they are watching you do. Clean? Cook? Work? Mow the lawn? These are other examples of places to start to teach play. Do they see you working on the computer? Set up an old computer or a cereal box turned over to look like a computer screen. Do they see you cleaning? Give them a swifter mop with the handle unscrewed half way up to make it their size. Let them help around the house, that IS teaching play (and cleaning).
3. A great place to get ideas is from books. Use children's books as your inspiration for what to do with those toys. Read the book out loud and then suggest you pull out some toys to do what you just read. An example of this is here, we read a construction book called, Demolition, and then acted out what we saw in the pictures and read in the words, as best as we could, with our toys.
Pick a couple toys to keep out. Put other toys away so the children are not so distracted by hundreds of little pieces and toys all over the room/house. Once you commit to teaching your child to play with that one toy for ten minutes or so, you will notice that they go back to that toy day after day. You will not need all of their toys out to keep them occupied.
Teaching your child to play is not something that can happen in one day. It does not take a lot of time but does need to be done consistently. You will notice how quickly they start playing on their own with the toys you have modeled but do not expect to spend 10 minutes playing with them and then walking away and an 18 month old to continue play for an hour. This is something that builds. They will work towards extended play and getting lost in play.
Next post: #4 What Should We Play? -Examples of Play