I opened my daughter’s backpack last Friday to an explosion of purple, green and gold. ‘Tis the season for Carnival and Valentine’s Day, which means that my walls and refrigerator will be decorated with the latest and greatest seasonal art for the next two weeks. But how interesting that red and pink adorn the hearts and cherubs that I see. Is that my daughter’s choice or someone else’s? What about your children? When they express interest in painting or coloring a heart, do you instantly take out the red or pink markers or is there a choice?
Whether art projects or open-ended exploration, allowing children to make choices during playtime leads to greater flourishing. Parents need to take a step back, become less directive and let go of the need to control. Your child will not be doomed to a life of failure if she takes the top off of the shape sorter and puts all of the blocks inside or the doll baby is wearing shorts on its head.
You may feel the need to direct, correct, or show them the “right” way, but by doing so, you are stifling creativity and exploration. Parents who are highly directive make the decisions about how to play, what to play and how quickly to play. As a result, their children harbor negative feelings, especially if the parent is not affectionate. The child may think that they are being controlled, which doesn’t sit well with any child OR adult for that matter!
Children hear us nibbling at their ears all day long… pick up your toys, brush your hair, get dressed, buckle up. Isn’t playtime the one time during the day when we can parachute out of our helicopters and allow for more choice? They don’t need us hovering. They need time to be creative and imaginative.Here are three easy things that you can do to ensure a pleasant, choice-filled play experience for your child:
- Allow for symbolic play. Children use play as a way to make sense of the world and experiment with different social roles. If the firefighter is wielding a spatula instead of a fire extinguisher, let it go! This may be a difficult one for parents who want things clean, orderly and put in the proper place, but you will be giving your children time to explore, master their environment, build competence and work out social norms.
- Find different paint colors. I see this in a lot of classrooms I visit. The art project is to marble paint a heart, so the teacher puts out pink and red. What if your child wants to make a black heart? Allow choice. When your child expresses an interest in coloring or painting, make sure that you offer a wide range of color choices.
- Look for loose ends. It’s not the most expensive toy, but the crinkliest wrapping paper that is most fascinating to young children! They love to play with loose ends — items that don’t have a specific purpose. Fill a bin with shoelaces, scarves, bottle caps, buttons, rocks or king cake babies and let the kids play. When children play with toys that only have one function (press the button and Elmo laughs), play ends more quickly.
Choice builds autonomy – one of the essential ingredients to psychological fulfillment. Feed your child’s brain today by giving them choice at playtime.
Comment and let me know your ideas for flourishing play!