It’s a very common scene. A child is surrounded by toys, but plays with none of them. Why? Many times they are toys we or loved ones have spent precious money on in hopes that they would inspire our children in their play, only to find that our hopes are dashed when our children don’t play the way we imagined. Here are a few quick questions to ask on a regular basis that may help shed light into a reason that may be making it harder for a child's play to take off:
1. Do they have too many choices?
Most of the time, instead of having too few choices, our children have too many. Children are easily over-stimulated and having too many options can be overwhelming and actually cause them to play less because they have too many decisions to make to even get started. Take into consideration your child’s personality as you ask these questions as the answers and solutions may be different depending on the child. Solutions to this problem can be getting rid of certain toys or rotating toys so less are out at one time.
2. Is the toy a tool or a form of entertainment?
One of the key questions when bringing a toy into my home is how it will be used as its primary function. Is the toy a tool or a form of entertainment? A tool is something that is used in order to build or make something and aid in the building process. I want the majority of the toys in my home to be tools that build creativity, imagination, critical-thinking, problem solving, and teamwork. A toy that entertains is something that provides amusement. Though we all like to be amused sometimes, the key aim of what I want for my children in their play is not simply amusement. If my child has spent her or his childhood constantly being amused, not only does this waste precious time where the child could be an inventor, an architect, a writer, a musician, a jungle explorer among many many other things, it develops the chief desire...to be amused. Instead of being passive, I want my kids to be active and engaged thinkers, creators, problem-solvers, and idea dreamers. In order to encourage those things I begin with the end in mind and work backwards to introduce toys that will help encourage the qualities in my kids that will continue to challenge and inspire them throughout their lives.
Note: If you are transitioning from mostly entertaining toys to "tools", expect a season of resistance, lots of phrases like "I'm bored", and even a bit of frustration with how much "work" it is to have fun playing with toys that make them think. It may take a good deal of feeling bored and frustrated, sort of like a toy "detox " period. Though uncomfortable for both you and your child, staying the course will be worth it once your child finds the freedom and space to unleash their imagination. During this period they will need LOTS of encouragement, more time with you playing parallel to them, and creative invitations to play until this type of play becomes more natural.
3. Is there a clear space to play with their toys?
This may seem like a silly question, and a trick one for parents of small children (for whom it sometimes seems impossible to keep any surface “clear” for even a short period of time), but having some kind of empty, open area is crucial in order for kids to have space to imagine, build, explore, and well...be kids. I don’t mean a huge space, just some floor space in some room where they have free reign and space to move. Getting rid of my coffee table was the best thing I ever did for my play space as it allows for spontaneous dancing, the building of towers and cities, as well as blanket forts and theatrical productions. Even if your other rooms are less than clean, try to keep at least one open area in the house clear... like a fresh sheet of paper just waiting for a work of art. If you don't have an area like this in your house, consider making a more open space in one room and have a goal to keep it open and clear to encourage open-ended play.
4. Do they know what their options are (can they see them)?
The principle “out of sight out of mind” absolutely applies to toys. Though we have a tendency to pile toys in bins, boxes, and drawers, not only does it make it harder for children to remember what their options are, it usually makes a bigger mess daily because children must take out all the toys to find one. I love beautiful, well-made toys because they are a joy to put on display and it’s much easier to give them each a place for easy access and clean-up. Visit our toy storage Pinterest board for lots of beautiful ideas.
5. Are the toys developmentally appropriate for the ages of my children?”
Often times if a child becomes increasingly frustrated during play it is for one of these two reasons: either they are too used to toys where they don’t have to think and need to build up a growth mindset about sticking with “hard” things like toys where they need to problem solve, or other times a child simply isn’t ready for the skills it takes to play with a toy. I have always been the kind of mom to think ahead and save up or ask for nicer toys that I know will grow with my children, but along with that also comes the temptation to push them to play with toys they simply are not ready to play with (independently). If that is the case for a toy, some options are to play alongside the child and help them until they develop the skills to play with that toy independently (or only take it out when we can play with them), help them develop a few key skills that are needed to have success playing with a toy and get them started (like teaching my daughter how to make corners with her magnetic tiles so she can reinforce structures without them falling down), or put the toy away and try again after a period of time (this is my most common solution). Just like pushing a child to read before they are ready can cause frustration for parent and child and possibly a negative relationship to books in the long run, the same concept applies to toys and as parents waiting until a child is developmentally ready for a toy will make playing a delight and create lasting fond memories of open-ended play.
Which of these questions might be a road block to think through in order to help your child find new freedom, inspiration, and the order they need to find their Waytoplay?