Jul 29 2015

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How to Help Your Child Play: Materials

Play materials


In order to play well, children need time, space, and materials. Children need to own their play, you provide the tools to help them play.

Materials for play. We think it is about buying toys, but it isn’t. Not always. Or rather, not toys that you buy at a store. Materials for play can be free, such as a stick in the back yard, or “free” because you already have it, like an empty yogurt container. Purchased toys have their place, but great play doesn’t happen simply because we own all the hot, new advertised toys. Great play happens in the park with dirt and a stick.

A few materials you need to consider:

  • PVC: It is a treasure trove of endless play. Fort building. Water table. A new play surface. Marshmallow shooter. Nerf bullet shooter. (I am a fan of PVC.)
  • Recycled materials: Yogurt containers (or something similar with or without a lid) once washed are great for stacking to build a tower or for sorting of other materials. Blankets and old sheets–don’t you remember playing with them when you were a child?
  • Kitchen supplies: muffin tins, stirring spoons, bowls. If you don’t want your child to use your kitchen supplies, a thrift store is your friend.
  • Open-ended toys and material: If you are planning on getting toys, toys that have open-ended creative uses are best. Blocks and Legos are two examples. Balls are open-ended too. It’s not that a child can’t use Barbie’s head as a stirring spoon, because she can use it that way. All toys are potentially open-ended but some lend themselves to creativity.

Looking at materials differently

When we look at the things around us, we primarily see them for a specific purpose. Like a bench, it’s for sitting on. Right? In play, a bench is the wall of a newly built fort. Or it’s a tunnel. Or a new play surface just the right height. Great play happens when children are free to explore new uses for the materials around them. (I am not encouraging this for everything, of course. If used improperly, some materials get destroyed. For example, a PVC cutter doesn’t make a great tree branch cutter. The lesson my kids learned wasn’t hugely expensive, but other things are not as easily replaced. Use your best judgement.)

Here is an example of Babycakes playing. Initially, my video was a distraction. My question helped her get back to play. How many things is she using as originally designed?

I looked through some of other play videos I recorded when Babycakes was little.

Two observations about play

  • Play is messy (or has the potential for toys everywhere). I saw this video the other day, and it brought me back to some scary messes I faced. It wasn’t a 5 lb bag of flour, but we all have our “I don’t know what to do” scary mess moments. While I think I might have had a conniption if it really happened to me, I can’t help but notice that those kids were having a blast.
  • But, the “mess” won’t always be there. As children get older, they have the capacity to clean up after themselves. However, those younger years, when it feels like all you do is pick up toys, will disappear in a blink. (For those of you going throw this stage, I know it’s the longest blink ever. My kids are old. I have—mostly—forgotten the chaos I lived with on a daily basis. Part of me misses the baby years of my children. How did I do it it day after day after day?)

Keep this in mind when helping your child to play.

  • Leave material out and available but don’t tell them how to use it.
  • Ask your children what something is or how it could be used differently. Observation and good questions help you discover together.
  • Join in with the imagination. Can’t you see the stick with the leaf is a hot dog? If you haven’t had a stick and leaf hot dog, you’re missing out.
  • “Baby” toys can be repurposed. Toys labeled for baby are simply safe for baby, but it doesn’t mean older children can’t play with them in a new way.
  • Older children are great play-scape designers for younger children. Give them the challenge, and they can come up with an awesome play space.
  • Children who have lost the ability to play independently because they have turned to technology or programmed play can learn how to be self-directed in play. Even the most play savvy parent will have to work at helping a child capture the power of independent, self-directed play.

What are your biggest challenges when it comes to materials for play?


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