Childhood. It conjures up images of happy children twirling in the sun, contented children entranced by finger-painting, laughing children pretending to be kings and queens assisted only by their imaginations and a crown constructed from paper and glitter.
Then there’s my kid, looking at me like I have no right to reasonably function in the adult world when I suggest he might like to play dress-up, too.
“Why?” he asks, heading to a quiet corner by himself. “Why would I do that?”
Play is a critical component in optimal development for children. It is so important that it’s protected as a childhood right by the United Nations. Yet, for some children, play may not come naturally. For these children, the best option for developing their concept of play is to meet them where they’re at with acceptance, some excellent resources, and a bit of extra knowledge. You may even find your own ability to play expanding as you support your child along the way.
Let’s Play! But quietly. According to the plan.
Playing is often thought to encompass only open-ended activities. Point a child at some creative materials and let them go!
But not all children respond to unstructured activities and would rather pit their creative abilities against participating in this kind of play. Particularly logical and literal children often dislike free-form activities, preferring instead to play according to a plan or with a specific goal in mind.
To cater to this type of play, parents may need to adjust their environment and expectations. Providing quiet spaces with low lighting may help prevent children from feeling overwhelmed, as can giving specific instructions. They may prefer to play at desks rather than on the floor, feeling more comfortable in an organized environment where they can see the toys and materials available to them.
By changing your expectation of noisy, messy play to quiet, refined play within an organized environment, you can teach your child how they function best and what they need to play happily.
Maybe they are creative?
Creativity is thought to be a core component of play, but the definition of creativity itself is not limited to one concept. Reframing children’s perceptions of themselves from ‘not creative’ to ‘creative’ may help them accept activities they previously might have shunned.
Creativity can be found through the use of an object in an original manner, or maybe through a focus on aesthetics and elegance. From this, we can see that a child who insists on using the ‘right’ shade of blue for the sky can be just as creative as a child who gleefully splashes rainbows around. It would be unfair to discredit a child who is focused on aesthetics rather than originality; understanding that this is a form of creativity can go a long way towards helping a child see themselves as a creative being.
Comment on your child’s ability to set up the farm animals ‘perfectly’ as a positive attribute. By drawing a child’s attention to her attention to detail and ability to focus, she might begin to value her own work and seek out additional creative opportunities. If you have a child who has to get things perfect, then find the time, space, and materials for that perfection to happen.
Follow, rather than lead
Children may play best without adult intervention. Co-opting play could make them less likely to play with you or in front of you. If this means you have to take a back seat when the figurines come out, do it. Children may also pick up on the fact that you don’t like the same things they like, or that you don’t approve of their choice of toy (the first toy my son took to bed was an egg whisk).
Research has shown that the fastest way to stop a child playing is to take over, and the second fastest is insincere praise – or, in fact, any praise at all! Linear children who may be more logical and literal than their peers may also be more sensitive to criticism, and strangely, praise can sometimes feel like criticism. If your child feels that the purpose of creativity is to make you happy rather than enjoy themselves, then they’re not likely to stay motivated.
Keep your point of view of their creative endeavors out of it, and focus instead on the aspects that your child loved. Ask questions about which part of the project he enjoyed the most, which was the hardest, which part he is the most proud of. Noticing things about your child’s creativity is great. Adding a value judgement or taking over is likely to backfire.
Get the good stuff
Obtaining the right type of materials for creative work is imperative. Children engage much less in creative play when the toys they’re playing with are from the latest movie or TV series. Toys that are not branded increase a child’s creative potential. Unbranded toys, such as those from Safari Ltd, allow children to imprint their own thoughts and feelings onto a character instead of following the storylines they’ve seen before.
Toys can also function as literacy props for children. Adults can scaffold a child’s play by introducing a new character or scenario and then see how their children adapt to this new development (taking care not to take over!).
This emphasis on generic materials also relates to craft. Huge amounts of glitter are much less useful than vibrant pencils and sheets of paper. Investing in appropriate resources to expand on your child’s journey in play is crucial to maintaining their interest and providing opportunities for creativity.
The benefits of play are immense. Play allows children to explore their inner worlds and develop skills and talents. By following your not-so-typical children’s interests and providing them with the appropriate resources and environment, you can help them develop their creativity – without insulting their sensibilities with the dress-up box.