I am often amazed thinking about how some children seem to "learn" to play. Before I became a parent, my conception of children at play was simple and perhaps stereotypical. I imagined the ideal; my child would one day sit and play with his toys, enjoying the different tasks each one presented. Playing should be easy. Playing would be fun. I have since learned that, for many children, the concept of play is by far innate. Many, including my daughter, require assistance developing the imagination and ability to explore playtime and enjoy it as it should be enjoyed. The following article summarizes how parents can lead their children along the journey of playtime and also provides some examples of techniques I have found useful while raising and playing with my daughter, now two years old.
Imitation is crucial while developing the skills necessary for play. This is perhaps the simplest statement that can be made concerning children and play. Children learn language by listening to others. Tying a shoe is learned when a youngster is shown the process. Play is no different. It is important for caregivers to tune into the kinds of play that their child prefers and shape it accordingly through imitation. For example, my daughter could live without anything bought on a toy store shelf. Give her a copper pot and a spoon and she is an instant "chef". A broom in hand and laundry basket nearby makes her a maid. Calculators, writing tools and paper make her "Daddy's little girl" (a.k.a. an Accountant). Interestingly enough, she was not taught how to use any of these common household devices in their correct manner. However, they soon became her preferred method of play. Realizing this came after she watched and watched and imitated her parents - playing at the same time. It sounds elementary. But it took my husband and I several months to stop buying as many manufactured toys and start accepting the fact that our daughter preferred to play by watching her parents, hence imitating.

Group play can be quite challenging for some children (and parents). I first became a member of a local "playgroup" when my daughter was 11 months old. I was thrilled because I was able to socialize with other mothers while the children played. This was indeed the case during the initial meetings, as the children (all without siblings) learned what it was like to be grouped with others their age. During this phase, the children hovered close to their parent and did not perform much interaction. As the weeks progressed and the children grew a bit older, the playgroup gatherings displayed less signs of "Mommy talk time" as more attempts at "playtime" were made. Group play, like individual play, does not come natural for all children. Toddlers, for example, are too young to grasp the concept of sharing. Add a strong willed toddler (as my daughter is) to a group play setting, and what may be viewed as a disaster can arise. Thankfully, our playgroup consisted of mothers who had a lot in common - including the compassion necessary to console a parent when a certain level of parental stress was visible. One important tip that may aid during group play may be to become conscious and not view the gathering as only social time for the parents. Conversation with adults is needed and rewarding, but children need to be guided through playtime and it is important that they are not left to "teach each other" in a group setting. Suggesting that at least one parent stay directly with the children -getting involved with the activities - will allow for more that just supervision, it will direct them and provide them with a model to imitate throughout their play date.

A creative parent teaches incredible things. When it came time to teach my daughter how to play, I found myself struggling to "make up" appropriate games and situations that kept her stimulated. Now that she is two, I look back and realize that I put too much stress on myself during this time. One must always remember that, in many cases, children are seeing things in their environment for the first time. Even if this is not the case, children seem to have a magical way of transforming what may be seen to an adult as dull or tedious into something fascinating and challenging. I remember seeing my daughter's face when I filled our kitchen sink with bubbles one day and gave her a cup so that she could "scoop ice cream". She was not only in awe of the bubbles (one of her favorite things), but also proud of the fact that this was her operation; she was in charge. I personally encourage the use of creative dress, drawing devices and homemade ice cream (i.e. bubbles) during playtime. Your child may amaze you with his interpretation of what you present.

You need to go with the flow. Children develop unique strategies for play based on many things. The techniques they choose to imitate and adopt and their own individual personalities are two factors at play (no pun intended). My daughter has recently entered a phase where her concept of play is based largely around clothing and her ability to master the art of dressing. I admit, using several articles of clothing a day can cause parental frustration (not to mention a lot of laundry) and there have been many occasions where I have wanted to put a lock on my daughter's bureau drawers. But this is her idea of play. And if you look at the notion closely, you can see a little girl becoming many things - independent, imaginative and thought seeking above all.

In a world where child development often seems to pass in the blink of an eye, it is important to allow children to be children and encourage them to develop their own ideas and concepts regarding play. Through the guidance and imitation of their caregivers, children can develop approaches to playtime that will satisfy their needs and allow them to develop individuality. Fun, exploration, education and play - they're what childhood is all about!


Deborah Duggan is co-owner and editor of http://www.ParentsResource.org. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband and daughter. Deborah may be contacted at mailto:[email protected]