Playtime primer

Don’t let busy schedules get in the way of having fun


Teresa Dankowski

Ah, fall. Leaves change color. Sweaters come out of storage. And homework, music lessons, soccer practice, ballet class and Cub Scouts keep your family from taking the time to smell the pumpkin flowers.

You and your children may be wondering where playtime went. Well, we can help you get it back. After all, play is important for kids. Done right, it can foster language development, social and emotional skill building, the ability to negotiate and resolve conflicts-even help a child's classroom performance. Because the benefits are overwhelming, play is a diversion kids can't afford to lose. Here are 10 tips for parents to help their kids get the most out of playtime.

1 Provide resources. Kids are hands-on learners, and toys are their tools for play, so parents should stock a variety of materials.

"Buy objects that are multiple use, that encourage children to use their imaginations," says Molly Collins, assistant professor at Erikson Institute. Building blocks and art supplies are two of her favorites. Nancy Stanek, a former elementary school teacher and owner of Toys et Cetera ( in Chicago and Evanston, recommends dolls because they promote role play. And if your boys cringe at the word "doll," Stanek reminds us that dolls include puppets and action figures.

2 Keep it simple. Kids don't need the latest American Girl doll or a 5,000-piece Erector Set to stay engaged. "It doesn't have to be expensive," says Anna Perry, education director of Seton Montessori School in Clarendon Hills and mother of 15-month-old Thomas. "Any parent knows that car keys can engage their youngest." Perry prefers household objects and natural materials that encourage movement and don't do everything for the child. "A turkey baster and two bowls with a little bit of water can keep a 2½- to 4-year-old busy for a long time," she says. Transferring water from bowl to bowl not only keeps young kids entertained, but teaches coordination.

3 Get involved ... Setting out toys and declaring "playtime' isn't enough. Some children, especially younger ones, need to have play modeled. Collins says parents should take advantage of the opportunity to demonstrate how to use materials and take turns. "Sometimes it's easy to take a hands-off approach," says Collins, "but play is learned."

It's also important that playmates set a good example. Collins adds, "Adults should intervene if play is going awry from what's expected or what's safe. Otherwise, children don't get the message that there are other ways to play."

4 … but not too involved. Adults need to know when to take a step back, too. "It's important for adults not to dominate the play," says Collins. Perry agrees. "Parents need to ask, 'What can my child do on their own?' " If that means repeating the same action over and over, parents shouldn't interrupt. "It may seem boring to the parent … but that's how they learn," says Stanek.

5 Know your child. Toys are not one size fits all. "What's simple for one child might be a little boring for another," says Collins. Parents should not be afraid to give up on a toy that's not working, or else try again later. "The toy might not work the first time out, but I say, take it away and reintroduce it," says Stanek.

6 Take it outside. Kids spend so much time indoors these days, it's important to get them out of the house. "Children are energized by anything outdoors," says Perry. "Play can be gardening, playing with the hose in the yard, anything that gets them moving and interacting with the environment." Perry likes having picnics in the backyard or visiting local gardens and zoos with her son, Thomas.

7 Don't believe the hype. When it comes to toys, less is more. "There's a huge market out there for plastic things with flashing lights," says Perry. She tends to avoid the "overkill" and warns against television programs that claim to be "educational," but whose claims have yet to be proven. "Television takes away so much of the creative process," she says. Still, it doesn't mean parents need to boycott commercial products. Stanek says that she and other owners of independent toy stores stand behind toys such as those made by LEGO and Playmobil because they are high quality.

8 Remember the older set. You might think your tween or teen is too old (or too cool) for playtime, but as they move toward logical thinking, play doesn't disappear-it changes form.

"It becomes more of a social piece," says Perry. "In their preteen years, they become very aware of another person's perspective. They don't want to 'play,' they want to do things that make a difference." Perry says parents can help their kids get involved in social causes or volunteer opportunities to fill this desire. But if your kid relates more with being a self-involved teenager than a budding activist, Stanek recommends encouraging them to keep a journal or a scrapbook. "That way, they're focusing on themselves and their friends, but doing it in a creative and imaginative way."

9 Make the time. "Parents, especially mothers, can feel so guilty about missing all this time with their kids," says Perry, a working mom. But rather than feel guilty, Perry recommends reveling in the moments (however few and far between) when you can slow down. You don't have to plan an entire day around a single activity, says Perry. Short trips work well, even if that means something as simple as walking to the backyard to eat dinner.

10 Don't force it. If a parent's idea of playtime is quizzing their children on flashcards, their kids will grow to resent play. "You have to be careful that toys don't become a drill, like in school," says Stanek. All too often, parents forget the cardinal rule. "Play should be playful," says Stanek. "If play is stressful, something has gone wrong."

Teresa Dankowski is the intern coordinator at Chicago Parent and a senior at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

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