When you think of what children need for healthy development, what comes to mind? Probably nutritious food, cognitive prowess and a loving home…but the topic of play might not make your list. It should, because playing is a child’s most important work, not something they do after their “real work” is done. It is how children make sense of the world around them a
nd is the essence of how children develop and grow into capable and critical thinkers.
If you are not schooled in the world of early childhood education, when you think of play for children, you might be imagining structured play with toys that lend themselves to predetermined themes such as a play gas station or a dollhouse, Well think again. Those cardboard tubes, styrofoam packing materials, scraps of yarn that you have laying around your home earmarked for the trash ... these may seem garbage worthy objects to you, but in the hands of a young child they are the gold standard of toys that provide endless possibilities to invent and explore. Engaging with these materials, considered the building blocks of powerful learning, is what open ended play is all about. With multiple uses, no rules to follow and the process not the product the priority, as Albert Einstein said, this type of play “ is the highest form of research”.
So you might be wondering what should open ended play look like for my child and how can I support this sacred work of children? What is best is for you to become your child’s learning ally by supporting what they are doing by observing, not by leading or interrupting. So instead of jumping into their play, take a step back and give them the space needed to experiment, create, imagine and be themselves. As you observe, you will learn about your child’s interests and needs so that the future activities that you plan, focus on your child’s agenda are not based on your expectations of what your child should be doing or should be interested in according to the “experts”.
Like any new skill, for both you and your child, open play might take a little time to figure out. But like anything else, with practice both you and your child will soon learn how powerful open play experiences are for your child now and for their future. As Anna Wadley said in her poem, Just Play:
When you ask me what I've done today,
And I say "I played,"
Please don't misunderstand me.
For, you see, I'm learning as I play.
I'm learning to be successful in work.
I'm preparing for tomorrow.
Today, I'm a child and my work is play.