Play for Keeps
by Deb Miner
Are there memories from childhood that stand out in your mind? What are they? Experiences—especially the unplanned and unstructured kind—are what I remember. Things I read, places I went, what happened, who was there, how I felt.
We all know how important early learning is for kids and there are certainly plenty of “educational toys” out there to help. But I’m especially interested in the kind of learning that happens spontaneously through open-ended play.
I love the natural curiosity and creativity kids have and it’s so fun to encourage little ones to discover and develop these abilities. It's so valuable for kids to become aware of their world through senses and feelings and also to begin to recognize their own actions and choices. Exploring self-expression and sharing experiences is key too. Much of this comes naturally when we’re young, but without encouragement and reinforcement, it can get lost in all the efforts to learn in more specific ways.
As a child, I spent a lot of time drawing, noticing, and imagining. My brother and I explored the woods and creatures in our backyard, boated on the Mississippi, and rode in the backseat on lots of roadtrips. We didn’t lack for toys (and I have the movies of Christmas mornings to prove it)! But my favorite toys often weren’t toys—they were things we discovered that had lots of possibilities.
Boxes became a restaurant stove, or a sled. Weird, slippery fabric remnants became curtains for a stage. Paper, crayons, and pens became cards, stories, signs, sculptures. I also loved books for the visuals AND the words AND the ideas! I still have a lot of the picture books my parents read to my brother and me. When I was older and reading on my own, I remember how great it was to go to the library and discover books myself. One of my favorites was My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George. I loved the descriptions of Sam’s experiences and the creative ways that he lived in the woods.
Our experiences—and responses to them—help define who we are and how we interact with our world, our community. Who and what we connect with. Why, where, and how we make connections and develop awareness. This is the kind of learning that comes from opportunities to explore. From “not knowing.” (And sometimes, parents: “not showing.”) Safety is important, of course, but sometimes being too safe, too controlled, too correct can be dangerous as well. Opportunities to be curious, to explore, to discover are both fun and important.
Getting outdoors is more important than ever, too. According to the Children and Nature Network, nature can enhance a child’s emotional and social development. If young children have regular opportunities for unstructured play, then they are likely to have a greater chance of getting along with others and being happier, healthier, and smarter, report researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Teens also can benefit: A survey of participants in wilderness programs found that their interactions with nature resulted in enhanced self-esteem, independence, and initiative.
Wherever you are, whatever you're doing, there are opportunities to explore, connect, and discover. Use your senses to look, listen, smell, taste, touch. Take time to notice your emotions. And experience all that's around you and your child.