Rich playtime is something that, I think, is unfairly taken for granted with very small children. A Google search of “Playtime with [pick an age, any age]” churns out a neat and tidy list of age-and-developmentally-appropriate activities such as “Blow bubbles! Build a tunnel! Sing songs!”, instantly gratifying and frustrating me at the same time.
I have a problem with this sort of definition of playtime.
First, these lists are only particularly helpful if your child is on an average developmental track. Mine rarely are (where IS that elusive average child?), which means that I spend half an hour searching the activity sheets for the month prior to and following the one dedicated to the current age of my child, at which point said child wakes up from their nap of un-average length and it’s time to play again.
Secondly, these lists are sometimes ridiculous. One suggested that my 13-month-old would enjoy a blanket fort. I once spent 15 minutes constructing a blanket fort while he watched me in amusement. I convinced him to crawl through the “tunnel” portion of it maybe twice, at which point he became utterly bored.
My instinctual need for a parenting play check-list has been somewhat abated by pieces lauding “slow parenting” and the theories of child development like that promoted by Waldorf educators that place an emphasis on self-directed play.
I am not wired to provide non-stop entertainment to my babies and I would argue that parents, stay-at-home or otherwise, aren’t contractually obligated to provide non-stop entertainment to the little humans entrusted to their care.
Playtime with my kids is honestly not something that always comes easily to me. I feel as if I am constantly battling the urge to SET A GOAL AND TEACH THEM SOMETHING or the lure of multi-tasking (“I’ll just check my email while we do this puzzle”). This is, I think, the symptom of a bigger problem that has more to do with my own inability to just appreciate stillness and presence.
But rich play-time (as opposed to “entertainment time”) and intentional presence is probably the single greatest gift a parent can give to their child and is certainly something that should be prioritized, if imperfectly.
Even as a stay-at-home mom, however, this is not something that just happens. There is always another errand, another chore, another play-date or activity, so intentional time together is something I have found I must purposefully make space for everyday.
In the hopes of providing you with a bit of encouragement, some practical help, and a shorter path to some hard-won lessons, here are a few steps that have helped encourage our family to have regular and rich play time.
a dedicated space // The number and size of toys in our house has increased exponentially since Miles was tiny and we lived in 800 square feet. This is another post in an of itself, but when we first moved into our house, the lack of a comfortable, usable play space became quickly apparent. I dedicated a corner of the living room to toys baskets, but the flow of the room meant that the toys were never naturally played with in that corner or, for that matter, in that room at all. This lent itself to a constant clutter battle.
I’ve since turned our dining room into a dedicated playroom. The center is left free for play and baskets with toys and books are along the walls, which makes playtime in that space a logical step. The room is also right next to our kitchen, which means that my little ones can spend time there and practice independent play without actually being too far away from me and Mark; important both for their comfort and our peace of mind.
This option wouldn’t be available to us if we were in a smaller house or apartment, I realize, and I’m grateful for the option. For those of you in small living quarters, I would encourage you to make children’s bedrooms or another logical space as play-friendly as possible. (Often, this means leaving a space free of furniture so that the children can actually have space to, you know, play and so that the adults have space to sit.)
limited toys // Limiting the visible toys helps in two ways: it limits distracting options during a child’s playtime and minimizes the toy clutter (read: keeps parents sane and the space attractive). I cycle toys between Miles’ bedroom closet and the playroom. This will work itself out differently for different families and is a constant process, but the key here is that toys should be visible and reachable.
If toys or books are piled up and require untangling and sorting constantly, there are probably too many in a given space. A clean, visually open space makes it more appealing for parents and children and makes it more tempting to settle into the space for some quality time. Bonus: It’s easier for children to learn to clean up after themselves if toys, even small ones, have an obvious home.
toys that encourage creativity // When choosing toys for a play-space, focus on toys that are sturdy, don’t require a lot of adult supervision or assistance, and that can be used in many different ways by different age groups. These might include small wheeled vehicles, blocks, animal figurines, beads, textured items, and musical instruments. Some of our family favorites are these:
* Small colored wooden blocks.
* A basic train set.
* A basic large wooden bead lacing set.
* Vehicles. So many vehicles (these aren’t wooden, I know, but they are SO LOVED).
* Random items with unusual textures, like these rubber potholders.
* This multi-use pound-and-tap musical bench.
routine // An example of this is: “After we get dressed in the morning, we sing these three favorite songs, and then we read two stories and then we play with blocks and then we take a walk.” Circle Time models may not be your gig (although studying examples like this one and this one have been vastly useful as I’ve worked to structure our circle time), but having some kind of routine that signals to your child that playtime and intentional quality time has commenced and that he can count on some focused time with his parent will help both of you maximize this time. I normally try to leave my phone or other devices in a separate room during our playtime routine since I am more prone to be distracted than my little ones. Your routine may change weekly or monthly and will certainly change and shift, but having a routine of some kind will ground your playtime.
Our ideal playtime normally begins with a few (familiar!) songs, followed by some fingerplay activities, followed by a few books, followed by free play with toys. Remember, kids LOVE repetition. They will thrive as they recognize the same songs and fingerplays day after day, so don’t pressure yourself to constantly interject new material into their playtime.
A quick note – I am continually working towards letting my child lead the play-time rather than trying to force Miles (and now Violet) into a structure that isn’t working. So if they are just not into storytime or singing that day, we move on. If they just really need to get outside and we need to scrap the indoor reading, we do. Don’t stress. Rich playtime is about quality time with your little ones and about them learning about their world, not checking off boxes so you can give yourself a gold “parent of the week” sticker.
light // We are so blessed with tons of natural light in our home and I’m realizing what an enormous difference this makes on my mood and our family’s interactions with each other. When we lived in a small apartment with limited windows (three, to be exact), I tried to maximize the light by opening the blinds (and sometimes the door) and using lots of mirrors and lamps to enhance the light. Most of us are drawn more towards spaces that are well-lit, so if your play area is the best lit area in the home, your children and you will naturally want to spend more time there!
I would love to hear about your playtime routines and tips for encouraging healthy playtime! Comment below or send me an email!