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Parenting 101: real play is wild, experimental and a little risky

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Real play is creativity to children growing in body and mind. Each child's play experience is unique, unpredictable and completely original...each time. Play is the process, not the outcome, not the beautiful picture or the amazing block city. While great things may come from play, play, by definition, is not goal oriented. It is play - wild, experimental, and a little risky as it unlocks secrets that surprise both children and adults. Play is Aha Moments!

Play is different than entertainment. Fat Brain Toys quotes the difference between play and entertainment: "Play is self-directed. It is hands-on and the interest is created by the individual involved in the activity. Entertainment is created by someone else." A child passively enjoying TV is entertainment...waiting to see the next surprise. A child dancing along with the TV show or interacting in non-prescribed ways with the TV characters is play. Whenever a child is moving the experience forward according to his or her own interests and current needs, the child is active and playing. Play is the antidote to boredom because it comes from within. Entertainment needs something external to push the "on" button.

When young children play, they are given a lifelong gift of learning - learning about themselves, others and the world. Every kind of play - art, texture play, pretend play, social play, music & movement, outdoor play - has invaluable benefits for your child. Sometimes the most valuable role for the parent is to sit back and observe. Watch for the problem solving and the thinking. Watch for your child's unique style and interests. Watch as your child grows from an inexperienced toddler just beginning to figure out the world to a preschooler with pattern, preferences and theories!

Here's some of what you might see:

  1. See your child experience the process of discovery. You’ll witness essential learning questions like: what is this, what can I do with this, is this going the way I expected, what else can I do with this, what do I think/feel about what I just did. Your child will then decide how to answer those questions – on his own or by asking for help – and eventually follow through on a complex process of learning and discovery. Even endless repetition is a path to predicting that the future will resemble the path or to perfect mastery.
  2. Observe your child learn to manage the unexpected. He will encounter cause-and-effect (uh-oh…when I do this, this happens – paint spills, new colors magically appear on the paper, towers tip over, or sand gets in my eye). Or, she may have to solve a problem (the glitter’s too heavy for the paper or this is not what I planned, or someone else wants my toy because they like what I'm doing).
  3. Support opportunities for emotional growth as your child comes face-to-face with an assortment of deep and genuine feelings – joy, pride, excitement, frustration, effort, instant gratification, delayed gratification, impatience, confusion, and sometimes despair. Creative play is the foundation of innovation and innovation often requires trial-and-error. According to Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute of Play, who advocates for the life-long value of play, “Play-deprived adults are often rigid, humorless, inflexible and closed to trying out new options".
  4. Pause as your child experiences the freedom of self-expression within an empowering framework of rules and boundaries. Sometimes, she will encounter the excitement of making something “out of nothing” and sometimes she will discover the frustration of not having the right color paper. Mostly, she will choose and organize the stuff of your world into something made for her world - interpretive dance or movement, an original family portrait, or a meal of mud pie and leaf salad. She will discover the “flow” of creativity and the reality of interruptions (as in “oops, it's time to clean up for today”).
  5. Listen attentively as your child shares new conversations that create a solid foundation for family support and togetherness. Share the wonder and the joy as your child describes the personal highlights of his play. Who, what, when came together in this extraordinary moment of creativity - was it easy & fun or challenging hard work? Were there a rainbow of colors or only a few? Did your child find something new to add today? Praise isn't necessary when children know you see what matters to them.

Play is good for your child and good for your family. Look around at what your child plays with - toys, real objects, nature collections. Children learn through play. In many ways, they become what they play - becoming a unique person with their own personal style and preferences. Now, you just need a plan to manage time and mess!

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