Young children radiate curiosity that’s waiting to be nurtured. Central to their early learning is the experience of imaginative play, the single most important tool for their overall development. Imaginative or creative play is open-ended, defined only by a child’s imagination; it’s not driven by results or pre-structured. Children instinctively use this type of creative play to foster the fundamental skills they need throughout their academic years and into adulthood, such as cognitive executive functions, literacy, physical coordination, emotional regulation, empathy and so much more. Yet playtime is being cut from children’s learning in an alarming way. Academic benchmarks have replaced open-ended exploration. A child’s performance is often judged on what he or she produces, rather than how he or she learns. More children are leading schedule-focused lives that resemble an adult’s.
“Regular play is the antidote to a growing culture of stress, anxiety and academic or social pressures,” says teacher and play-based tutor, Allison Klein. “Just ten minutes of play each day can help to support a child’s cognitive growth and promote relaxation.” Allison is the founder of teacher-curated toy boutique, Rose and Rex, which she created to start a conversation about why Play Matters. Check out her five tips to connect with your child while supporting their development through the joy of imaginative play.
Choose open-ended toys and materials
We fill our Rose and Rex shop with inspiring open-ended toys so that each time a child plays, the experience supports their development. Open-ended toys actively engage, rather than entertain. They include toys and materials that can be transformed by a child’s imagination, personalized, explored and used in more than one way, such as building blocks, eco-friendly play dough, costumes, fabric scraps, and cardboard boxes or tubes. For example, a doll with a pre-designed expression or identity only tells one story, but an open-ended doll (Princess Anything Doll; $100) with no pre-determined expression allows a child to apply his/her own story and feelings. Because open-ended toys come to life in a child’s hands, they effortlessly encourage ingenuity and original thinking.
Join their play
If kiddo is putting on a puppet show, pick up a puppet (Nhocchi Hand Puppet; $25) and join the fun!. Young children learn how to play with others by first engaging in parallel play, which means playing next to someone separately. Sit next to your child and start creating your own block structure near them. Doing so will encourage conversation, collaboration and social learning. As they grow, continue to inspire open-ended play with this tried-and-true tactic: showing genuine enthusiasm. Studies reveal that when adults are excited about something (green beans! bedtime! homework!), children respond with more motivation. Let your child take you into their imaginary world and simply follow their lead.
Be a ‘Block Star.’
A set of building blocks is one of the best open-ended materials for encouraging mathematical, scientific and artistic learning. Children are natural builders, and use blocks as both a construction tool and catalyst for dramatic play. Through block play, your young inquirer learns early math skills, including counting, sorting, classifying, equivalencies, part-to-whole relationships, and identifying shapes. Pick block sets (Tegu Block Pocket Building Set; $25)with different shapes and colors to help develop your child’s vocabulary. Talk with them about the block’s shape, size, and relationship to the other blocks, such as ‘The blue cylinder is on top of the red cube.”
Ask Open-Ended Questions.
An open-ended question invites more than a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer from your little one. Let’s say your child puts on an owl mask (Owl Mask; $35) and starts flying around the room. Use these great open-ended questions to enrich their learning and creative play, “How do you think it feels to fly?” or “What might a bird’s home look like?”, instead of close-ended questions like, “Do owls fly?” or “Is it fun to be an owl?” Open-ended questions inspire new play possibilities, open up important lines of communication and help cultivate your kiddo’s original thinking and self-expression.
Create a literacy rich environment.
Creative play leads to storytelling. As children build a block castle, narrate a scene for their stuffed animals, or zoom their wooden car around the room, they’re creating stories. Encourage your young storyteller by offering a variety of children’s literature and keeping open-ended materials on hand for their next new narrative. Place a bowl with scraps of paper and pencils or crayons next to their play area (Food Fight , Really Big Coloring Poster; $31) —this will encourage them to organically add writing, illustrations or dialogue to their latest creation. So when your little one feels the urge to create “Danger!” sign for their dragon lair, they can do so effortlessly.
Lifestyle photos by Mary Grace