5-ways

5 Ways to Encourage Play in Children

Cara Meredith essentials

They only needed pen and paper in order to get started yesterday. Somehow, making lists turned into drawing pictures of fire, and drawing fire turned into a game of Fire Chief for the next hour. Two little boys ran around the house, putting out “forest fires” in the living room, the bedroom and Mama and Daddy’s room alike.

As I watched my children, ages 2 and 4, enter into this world of imagination and play, I almost did a little skip in the air: They’re playing without me!

They don’t need me to sit in on playtime quite so much anymore, even though I more-than enjoy watching their creative juices flow. Although I loved them as babies, I love who they’re becoming – little boys who thrive on play, on creating imaginative worlds all their own. And it makes me want to do everything I can to encourage this critical element of childhood for them.

The American Academy of Pediatricians agrees. In a 2007 report, play promotes healthy development, and even helps maintain strong parent-child bonds: “Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive and emotional strength.” Isn’t this the desire of every parent?

Let’s invite our children to just be kids and play ­– and, in case you need a couple of ideas, here are five things that have worked for my boys:

Help them get started. 

Oftentimes, if my preschooler is hanging on me like a barnacle in water, I know it’s time to give his imagination a kick-start. Sometimes, jumping into a short physical activity can be just what kids need to take it to the next level of creative play. So, have a dance party. Play Robot Mama, “With. All. Her. Little. Robot. Minions. R2D2! C3PO!” Lie down on the floor and see what happens when your child is allowed to climb on top of you for a few minutes. Read a book out loud – and then dare him or her to act out the characters they just heard read to them.

Give them a space all their own. 

Just like we need a dedicated space to cook a meal, children need a special place that fosters creativity. Is there a shelf in your little girl’s closet that can house dress-up clothes? Can you create a creativity corner, complete with crayons and markers, scissors, glue and paper for your young son? Even if you’re in a small apartment space, children can decorate a special imagination box; then, you can encourage creativity every time you pull out the box.

Make time for free play.

In today’s fast-paced world, it’s so easy for us to run our children from one activity to the next. But in doing so, we miss out on the elemental nature of just playing. Start by taking a breather. See if getting rid of one activity a week makes room for more imagination. Schedule in free play, if that’s what it takes, and by all means, let your kids be bored! They’ll find something to do – they always do (and chances are, it’ll be creative).

Limit screen time.

Perhaps this falls into the “conventional” category of ways to encourage play, but we still need to take note. It’s easy for me to want to pop on another episode of Sesame Street when I need to get work done or feel exhausted by motherhood. But studies have shown that too much screen time can lead to childhood obesity, aggression and problems in school, to name a few. Let’s do our children a favor and limit their time in front of television and electronic devices alike so their creativity can soar. 

Get outside. 

I’m a firm believer that too much time inside is not good for the soul. So, when things feel a little too unruly in the living room, we head outside – and being outdoors never seems to disappoint. Go to the park. Plant a garden (or simply see what happens with a shovel and some dirt). Head to the front yard with a bucket of chalk, and invite your neighbors to join in the fun. Ride a bike or a scooter. Then, when your children have successfully begun using their imaginations, sit down with your book and enjoy the fresh air.

Even if it takes a bit of unconventional prompting, we can give our child the chance to play without rules and guidelines. When creativity and imagination become their muse, we parents are freed up to be the most creative and imaginative versions of ourselves, too. And I don’t know about you, but I’m all for that happening!


Cara Meredith is a writer and speaker from the San Francisco Bay Area. Co-host of the Shalom Book Club podcast and a member of the Redbud Writers Guild, she is passionate about racial justice and reconciliation, the great outdoors and dinner around the table with people she loves. She holds a Masters of Theology (Fuller Seminary), and can be found on her blogFacebook or Twitter.