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Exactly What is Play?

You'd think it is self-explanatory, but free, independent play is actually becoming more of a lost art. More and more I find parents who feel that as long as the child is busy, then they are playing. Even if they are busy building a structure out of a step-by-step catalog, or playing videogames, or pushing buttons on a toy that in turn plays music or says something funny, or even board games.

There is nothing wrong with the examples mentioned above, they just don't fit the definition of play that experts in child development have in mind.

So if play is none of the above, then what is it?

Play is a time that a child spends in free and uninterrupted exploration and manipulation of their surroundings.

Let's take a moment to unpack this definition.

Play is free

This means that it is child-initiated and unstructured. There are no rules to follow, no encouraging words for hitting the right button, no levels, paths, or any particular way to "win" unless the child invents it during their playtime. A child should be able to play alone, but it could include others as well.

Play in uninterrupted

When a child is playing, they lose themselves in the situation that they have imagined. This is a deep learning stage that should not be interrupted. Much like deep sleep. It is true that play is a child's work, and they are working very deeply when they are learning. Unless it is necessary, they should not be interrupted.

Play is exploration and manipulation of their surroundings

This is a tricky phrase. There are limits, of course. Breaking a window is not play, and neither is cutting branches of trees, for example. But playing safely and respectfully both indoors and outdoors is totally fine. Climbing a tree is completely acceptable if it is not breaking any house rules. Cleaning the window should be fine too. Children love spraying and cleaning windows.

Children should have access to toys and items that they can manipulate to match the story in their imaginations. For example, a toy horse that doesn't make any sounds can one day be in a horse race, another day can fly to save a situation, and another day can be a doctor to the other animals. Toys that only serve one function should be avoided.

Play is the time that a child has to make sense of what they are experiencing and learning. It is also their time to feed their curiosity and their imagination.

Ideas of great playing materials:


* Soft balls and balloons

* Hanging ribbons and mobiles

* Washcloths

* Lightweight items with different textures


* Play-dough, kinesthetic sand

* Building bricks (with no instructions)

* Toy animals, houses, farms, dolls

* Scarves and fabric

* Cardboard boxes

* Basic art supplies: pencils, crayons, child-safe scissors, glue, popsicle sticks, pipe-cleaners, colored paper, felt

* Costumes, old clothes, old shoes, accessories, hats, wigs

* Toy kitchens with basic materials (they can make up the rest)

* Water basin, water sprayer, and sponges or washcloths

* Cushions and blankets to build forts, obstacle courses...etc.

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