13 September 2011

The Essential Art of Play

Welcome to the September Carnival of Natural Parenting: Parenting Through Play
This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama. This month our participants have shared how challenging discipline situations can be met with play. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.

Most parents realize that "play" time is integral to a developing child, but why? Playing is an art that every animal engages in and provides opportunities to explore, interact, vent & converse, learn, improvise & create*, and be.

So how does one parent through play? Easy! The same way one parents any other time! Teaching children how to play and take advantage of the nothingness on their schedules should be a priority.

Play certainly does not have to be, nor should be, a rigorous exercise. Nonetheless, lessons, of sorts, can be incorporated into playing so that "nothingness" turns into "somethingness."

"My name is Niko; I like to play!"
[This is fresh after his birthday, when all of the toys' pieces were accounted for and assembled...]
Take for example - since Niko just got a whole bunch of this stuff for his birthday (of course, you don't need to use any specific brand of toy, toys at all, or even objects! Invisible items work great, too, and really stretch the imagination of both parent and child, especially as children grow older and learn to improvise more proficiently) - play food and play cooking- and tableware.  Niko loves food and loves even more the play with it. Since real food can be a bit messy, play food is a great alternative. He received an awesome set of veggies and fruits that are held together by velcro and are able to be split into logical pieces (the banana peels; there are peas in a peapod; an avocado can be sliced in half; etc.). The sets came with a cutting board and a plastic knife (which may be his favorite piece... anyways...). It's awesome watching him firstly mimic me, as he sees me in the kitchen, slicing and dicing, peeling and halving. Even better, secondly, he likes to share. Now, he's just shy of 13 months old... and is sharing? Yeah! Not just with his play food (which is where it started in the last two weeks) but he's moved on to sharing real food, too! He's been a fan of sharing with the dog for a while (whom he also offers play foods to), but to share with me?! What?! Third, he's also learned to clean up. I know he is still young, but I am trying very hard to instill the message of one toy at a time, and, occasionally, he's showing that it is sinking in.

It's amazing how much can be learned during something so fun. Playing teaches children to...
  • Be responsible
    • Children, of course, have little responsibility - help clean up toys, keep their room reasonably tidy within their means, maybe help with some other small tasks when asked. A great way to let them experience a little bit of responsibility without actually having any responsibility is through role-playing. Maybe Baby wants to be Mommy for the day (or until it's time to make lunch). Or does he want a dog? Want to be a teacher? A policeman/woman? Fire engine? (Uh, yeah, he can be a fire engine if he wants to be! They have responsibilities, too! Like WEEeeOooOo-ing). Encourage your child to take on roles in which there is an inherent set of responsibilities and gently push that those responsibilities be met (Baby is Mommy? I want some water!; Police Officer? I see a criminal! I see an expired meter!!!). These small responsibilities can be rewarding when completed and can make a little one feel important. Most favorably, they can switch their responsibilities and have a new set every day! The possibilities are endless!
Niko's Favorite Role: Eccentrically-Dressed Chicken Farmer
  • Improvise
    • Lauren at Hobo Mama recently had a great post about being a "Yes - And" parent, in both the immediate improvisational meaning as in thinking on your toes, witty responses type stuff but also as in improvising activities and solutions to even out the mundane reality your (or at least my) life may be and the fantastic wishes of your four year old. By setting examples of creatively meeting in the middle, secretly you are teaching your child to find novel solutions to problems that are too novel themselves to be solved with the most boring solution. By teaching children to think creatively, they are able to draw better conclusions and engage in more proficient critical thinking.
"Mom, my name is NOT Da-Sein! I am To-Be-Da-Sein-To-Others-To-Be-Unto-Myself."
  • Develop Intellectually & Individually (Self-Actualization)
    • Children learn by mimicry, and through encouraging children to try to do what they see (with appropriate help when needed), small steps can be taken towards a rewarding type of self-sufficiency and ever-piqued curiosity. Discovering solutions often leads to additional questions, and it is through the act of asking questions and developing critical thinking that self-actualization flourishes. Descartes said it sweetly, "Cogito, ergo sum." - "I think, therefore I am." The pinnacle and point of self-actualization in which we constantly and repeatedly reach stages of actualization, only to find another to be achieved ahead.**
Play is an obviously integral yet vastly overlooked area that children depend on to grow developmentally. Play provides respite from responsibilities (for both parents and babes!), opportunities for the imagination to exercise, activity for the body, and pathways to become versed in what comprises human-ness. If you do not already, take time to play with your children daily. Even 30 minutes of devoted playtime can make a significant difference in the ease with which he or she will hit developmental milestones and astound you.

*This post by Code Name: Mama is my most favorite ever. Every time I see a Monster anything, I think of this. I can only hope that when Niko is more cognizant, he will enjoy doing activities like this because it's awesome!
**I'm a huge Philosophy nerd, sue me - I could go into a huge Hegelian argument here with some spicy Heidegger on top, but there is too much dust keeping my books shut. I really love the school of thought surrounding the actualization and self-actualization of Da-Sein, both -of-and-in-itself and -of-and-to-others.

What are your thoughts on play? How do you do it? Share in the comments or on the FaceBook.
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Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama
Visit Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!

Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:
(This list will be live and updated by afternoon September 13 with all the carnival links.)


  1. I agree — that Jeremy video was awesome! Thanks for loving on my article, too. :)

    Now that I realize you're a philosophy nerd, you could help tutor me in understanding it more. I think I got a B- in my philosophy class because my brain hurt… ;)

    But, anyway, the thing that struck me in your post was the sharing with you. I, too, found it astounding how early that sort of cooperation and generosity started. And then tried to remind myself not to be astounded. Of course, children will mimic what we model for them. But it's such a beautiful thing to witness, isn't it?

  2. Lauren, I will gladly help you as best as I can with whatever philosophical dilemma you present : ) especially if it involves one of my sultry German favorites!

    I try not to be astounded, too - it's all normal development, but it's really amazing how all of the little things really melt my heart.

  3. We are big on play food in our house too. The possibilities with it are endless, and new possibilities develop as our little ones grow. For example, we can use play food for math and counting - those measuring cups that my son loves playing with now will help him visualize complex math concepts like 1/2 and 1/3.
    And also...philosophy nerds, unite!
    Great post!

  4. Jenn, Thanks! Everyone thought I was nuts asking for play food items for his birthday ("He's only one!" "There are so many pieces!" "He's too little!") but thankfully we're proving them wrong, and I'm really looking forward to developing more complex skills with him as he becomes capable of grasping them. It's amazing watching him just know the difference between different fruits now - he can pick out different ones when asked and seems to realize which real foods the play foods correlate to and has a preference for those play ones that he has a real preference for.

  5. This is a wonderful post. I'm so happy to have discovered your blog through this carnival. I keep wanting to just stay here and explore... I'll come back.
    Niko is amazing and gorgeous and is so lucky to have such a wise mama.

  6. Teresa, Thank you! I'm really happy that you've found us : )

  7. This is a really interesting post. I think you've made some really great points, and given me some things to consider. I especially love the idea of the toy fruit and veggies! I really want some of those now. :)

  8. Aww, I'm glad you liked our Jeremy video - it's my favorite too :) Your points here are so spot-on! I think it was Amy/Toddler in Tow who said that as adults, our jobs are to work all day - kids' jobs, however, are to play. All. Day. Long. Play *must* be important, since it's kids' primary activity!

  9. All I do is get put in the same commenting group as you.... :)

    I actually made a point of sitting with H & P this evening for about 20 minutes to play with MegaBlocks and it was one of the most satisfying experiences I've had in recent times. :)

    I am so happy that you are a mother who understands how important it is for children to play. All too often, play gets ruined by overscheduling, "good clothes" or alternative priorities. I've said it before and I'll say it again...your son is so lucky to have you as a mother!

  10. Coincidence that we're always in the same group, Amanda, or just chance?

    My mother always yells at me because Niko has so much clothes... but I let him get into everything, so he needs lots of clothes so he has clean, nonstained clothes to go out in public in (and to be stained shortly) and lots of play clothes because he needs changed quite often (no less than 3 changes on a good day, not including out of and in to pajamas...)

    Thanks for reading!