Helping Parents Add Play to their Children’s Lives

By Meryl Neiman

I’m thrilled to be writing my first article for Games for Educators. As readers of this newsletter, you already understand what many unfortunately don’t: that play is integral to every aspect of a child’s healthy development. I speak and write about returning unstructured play to kids because until relatively recently, like most other parents, I truly didn’t get it.

I knew that play was an important part of childhood, but on a daily basis, in my household it often took a backspace to the pulls of academic enrichment, music lessons, organized sports, and a host of other competing demands. But now that I’ve read the literature, reviewed the studies, and consulted with experts, I recognize that the best thing parents can do for their children is to just make sure they have time to play.

The sad reality is that child-directed play with friends has dramatically declined over the last few decades. So how do you, as educators, help parents appreciate the benefits of play and return play to their children’s lives? Here are a few humble suggestions:

1. Teach the Parents

On Open School night, or Meet the Teacher, or whatever opportunity you have to interface with parents, explain the importance of open ended learning.

You could even begin your time together with a game. For example, you could invite the parents to stand and lead them in a quick game of Simon Says. Once the game has ended, explain what skills a game like that enhances for a child: i.e., listening carefully to instructions or directions; the ability to sustain focus and attention; regulating impulse control; winning and losing graciously.

Talk about how imaginative play helps a child get outside of his or her concrete circumstances and feel empowered to explore new emotions, activities, and roles in a safe environment.

Explain how a simple outing to a park lets children gain experience negotiating the choice of game (kickball or chase?), learn how to take turns, understand the consequences of being too bossy or too passive.

These are all life skills that children need to succeed. I know this may seem obvious to you, but parents don’t always make these connections.

2. Lead by Example

Allow time for play! It seems that in our country’s quest to enhance our educational system, the quantity of homework allotted to children has become a marker for academic rigor. To my knowledge, however, there’s no data that suggests that children’s academic performance is tied to the amount of homework that they are assigned. Why not assign play instead?

Tell children that their homework is to spend a half hour outside playing. Obviously, this is impossible to assess, but at least it sends the message that play is important. Alternatively, if you must assign homework, try to make it into an age appropriate game. For example, you could ask the kids at school to guess how many of certain items they have in their home (forks, spoons, windows, plants, scissors, anything) and then go home and count the actual number and record both sets of results.

You could then use those results in a graphing lesson or ask the children to write a sentence comparing their predictions to the actual counts. Like your in-class lessons, homework can also almost always be made into some kind of game.

3. Facilitate Socialization

Parents can sometimes forget the importance of socialization for their children, especially when they, or their kids, are especially busy outside of the classroom.

I think it’s okay to remind parents that interpersonal skills are critical to a child’s development and that school today doesn’t always offer the time to fully develop those skills. If your school allows it, send home a classroom contact list as soon as possible so that parents can schedule play opportunities.

Suggest good pairings to parents, especially those with children who are shy or struggle to make new friends quickly. As a parent, I always appreciated those kinds of suggestions from teachers.

Because everybody is so busy these days, scheduling after school playtime can be challenging for moms and dads. That’s actually why I co-founded Playdate Planet. The URL is in my bio below. Feel free to give it to parents, or e-mail me with your address and I can send you bookmarks with the information that you can share with your students and their parents.

And finally, . . . give yourselves a big pat on the back! Just by recognizing the importance of play, you are already making a huge difference.

Meryl is a recovering attorney, entrepreneur, speaker, and writer, committed to returning unstructured play to children. She is the Co-Founder and CEO of Playdate Planet, a website and Facebook Application that has made playdate scheduling quick, easy, and hassle-free for busy moms and dads. She’s also the host of Parenting with Playdate Planet, a popular parenting podcast, and she speaks and writes regularly about the importance of play for children. Meryl graduated from Brown University and Duke University School of Law. She lives in Columbus, Ohio with her husband, two children, and three dogs.

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