Friday, July 25, 2008

The importance (& simplicity) of play - Part 4

I've written a number of posts about play and argued that it is important for many reasons. Broadly, it stimulates children's creativity while assisting their development cognitively, emotionally and socially. It also encourages their imagination, fine and gross motor skills, decision-making, problem solving and risk taking. As well, it helps children to learn about themselves through success and failure and to build relationships with parents, their siblings and friends.

However, in this post I want to make just one key point - that simple play is best. Simple opportunities for play will always (well, almost always) capture their attention, that's why the box so often wins out over the expensive and complex toy.

Stimulating play does not require expensive equipment or toys, multimedia excitement or body numbing entertainment (though that stuff can be fun too!). In fact, I want to argue that children if given some control over their play will often choose the simple. What do I mean by this? I mean that they will often enjoy:
  • the repetitive and the predictable;
  • the unexpected and surprising (yes, that's the opposite of the above - they can love both);
  • the silly over the serious;
  • activities that stimulate their senses (not necessarily all at once);
  • play that involves other people, both actively and passively (this is especially true of parents).
It is important as parents and caregivers to be on the lookout for opportunities to structure situations during the day that permit and encourage stimulating play. While its hard to do fancy stuff when faced by the demands of 2-3 children (or even more in the case of some readers of this blog), if children are engaged in stimulating activities they are less likely to be driving you nuts. And the simple stuff is the easy stuff. One final thing, as I indicated in a previous post it's also important to allow your children to take lots of initiative - play is when they can take the lead and show you how to do things.

To illustrate what I mean by simple play, here are three examples of play situations that I shared in the last two weeks with my grandchildren.

Example 1 - Playdough with a twist

I called at my eldest daughter (Nicole's) a week or so ago and quickly began talking and playing with my three grandchildren (Jake 5, Rebecca 3 and Elsie 18 months). Rebecca got out some play dough, Jacob joined her. I sat down and we began rolling, patting, cutting and shaping. Elise (18 months) joined in more to be part of it than out of interest. Rebecca was making shapes when Jacob decided to make a bed for his platypus. Jacob was wrapping a small plastic platypus in the playdough. I asked "Is that a bed?" He decided that it was. I said to him, "Why don't you make a blanket for him?". Within minutes he'd made a lamp, some worms (for him to eat), a mat, table, books etc. Rebecca was watching and I suggested that she put one of her small dolls to bed. She proceeded to mirror Jacob's creative constructions and add variations of her own including a pillow, cat and vacuum cleaner. Elsie, joined in asking me to roll some dough, pulling it apart, cutting out shapes, trying to get some attention and generally trying to be part of what everyone else was doing. We spent at least 45 minutes playing in this way as they looked at each other's creations, we told stories about the doll and the platypus, they asked and answered each other's questions, took turns, encouraged joint activity, negotiated the use of the materials and so on.

Example 2 - Playing with a screwdriver and screws (yes it sounds dangerous - a one-on-one activity)

Today I was playing with my daughter Louise's son Samuel (age 2.5 years). We started playing with cars, just pushing them around, making noises etc. We moved on to his trains, made a track, a tunnel out of a box, and then basically pushed our trains around and around, swapping trucks and engines, taking turns being in front and behind, taking turns on the sidings etc. While we were doing it Sam's dad (Jon) was nearby pulling a box apart, undoing some screws and putting them into a bag. Sam decided he'd join in and I joined them both. His Dad left to do something else and left us with the half dismantled box, the screwdriver and the partially filled bag of screws. Sam picked up the screwdriver to try to remove a screw, I helped him, then showed him how to screw one in. He then noticed that the screwdriver was magnetized and could pick up the screws. I suggested he pick some up then pass them to me to put into the bag. We filled the bag, and as we did so we marvelled at the way sometimes the screwdriver picked up 3 or 4 screws. We counted them, laughed when we dropped them, filled the bag, and then emptied it again. This went on for about 20 minutes. Sam suggested I have a turn and he would put the screws in the bag. Eventually, he lost interest and we moved back to the trains.

Example 3 – Rumbling Grandad

Carmen and I called at our daughter Nicole and son-in-law David's house on Saturday and we ended up in the back yard. Carmen was cutting the kids' hairs (it was Jacob’s turn), Nicole and David were preparing afternoon tea. . The girls took the opportunity to rough me up a little. Rebecca said, “Sit down here Grandad" (meaning the verandah on their cubby). When I did she jumped on my back. I immediately responded by clasping her legs and standing up. “Oh no, I screamed, what’s on my back?”. “I’m the Hagy". "Oh no," I said, "I'll toss you in to the ocean, because Hagy's hate water." I raced off to the other end of the yard with Rebecca squealing with delight as I ran too close to the bushes and tossed (well lowered) her into the sandpit (ocean). This was repeated several times before Elsie claimed her turn. This continued for about 15 minutes with many variations (different monsters and different responses from grandad to the dastardly creatures). Eventually Jake sprung from the hair-cutting chair and claimed his turn. This silly play involved creative story (in which all of us participated two at a time), word play, sound exploration, physical activity, turn taking etc.

All of the above examples share a few basic things, they:
  • were simple,
  • spontaneous,
  • initiated by the children,
  • required little or no preparation or planning,
  • provided opportunities for fun, creativity, and learning.


Wendy said...

Hi Trevor,

This is a fantastic blog. I haven't had a chance to read more than five blogs and I've skimmed the rest. I'd like to use this blog entry on my blog with you as a guest blogger. If you'd like to have a look a mine it's My address is I'd like to include the pictures you have in it as well. I've done this with others, but would never do it without permission.

Here's hoping

Wendy Anderson

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Wendy, I'm glad you like the blog. I'd be happy for you to link to the post. Could I suggest that you write a short introduction to my piece on your blog (you could even quote from the first section as it is) and then link to my post. I don't want to allow the photos (mostly of my family) to be posted on another site. I enjoyed looking at your blog and appreciate your interest, Trevor

Louisa said...

Hi Trevor, I've been having some conversations recently about the place of toys in play and whether they have place in early childhood development and if so, what. Many of my friends have seemingly endless toys for their kids and I have an ongoing, internal battle about whether I am being a stingy parent by not doing likewise! If you have any thoughts on this or can direct me to any papers or research (as opposed to articles written by "doctors" on the websites of toy companies!!) I would really appreciate it. Cheers,

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Louisa,
Nice to hear from you. I share some of your concerns. On the whole I think children do have too many toys. So many toys are things that are sold to children through advertising. They end up wanting the same toys as their friends. In many ways, this is the beginnings of materialism for kids. Having said this, toys can be a wonderful way to stimulate children's imagination. But simplicity is what we need. So often simple things can lead to wonderful opportunities for creative play and problem solving. Some of the ideas in this post reflect this type of thinking. I'll see what I can dig up for you in terms of research papers in this area and consider the issue in a future post on play. Thanks, Trevor

Louisa said...

Thanks for such a quick reply Trevor. I appreciate your thoughts and look forward to anything more you have to say on this topic, or anything you can direct me too. Thanks again!

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Louisa,

I've done another post on 'The Importance of 'Simple' Play' HERE

I hope this is of relevance. You'll notices that there are a few references for you to follow up.

Regards, Trevor