Four Ways to Channel Creative Play in Our Kids

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The Thing About a Child’s Play

I’m not a psychologist or a counselor, not a caseworker or a therapist, but I’ve learned a few things about raising kids. The reason could be that I’ve raised six of my own. It could be that I’ve babysat multiple nieces and nephews, or it could be that I spent a lot of my childhood in creative play. I suppose one of the reasons is that I’ve observed hundreds of kids over the years – on the playground at school, in the front yard at my house, and having foster kids in our home.

I am here to tell you that our kids are losing out because they don’t know how to play creatively. It’s not their fault. The fault lies with the adults in their lives.

Watching children at play is so educational. In listening to their conversations I learn so much about them, about their friendships, their family, and relationships. I also learn by watching them at play. This is because children “play” about the things happening in their world. They want to copy the adults in their lives, so they get to do that by playing. We especially find this helpful when we have previously unknown children through foster care in our home. Some of their hurt and heartache spills out into their play. I don’t have to sit down and say, “Tell me what’s bothering you,” because I can listen from another room and sort through their broken pieces, finding a semblance of order from what I am hearing, and a better understanding of their story. I’ve learned things they will never tell their caseworker or counselor because they were uninhibited in their play and didn’t feel responsible to give out information to a stranger.

Playing creatively helps children work at the problems they have. They become problem solvers as they play any role they have chosen that day. A child will develop more completely if he sets up his own complex situation and works through a problem rather than just watching other children he doesn’t even know work out solutions. Watch them, listen to what is happening, and you can learn as well.

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So how do we do that? Here are some ideas.

Restrict cell phones, video games, videos, and tablets. In other words, get rid of electronics. Don’t use fidget spinners as a crutch. If you think your child needs it for school, then have it stay in the backpack at home. Help your child be creative, and a lot of his nervous energy will go away. Your kid does not need all those things. He might want it, but it is not a need. The reasons to restrict electronics are many-fold. You can research it yourself, but it’s a proven fact that children who hunker down in front of electronic devices are less creative than those who spend little time with devices. This is because somebody else is entertaining their minds. They don’t have to use their minds to be a couch potato.

Your kid doesn’t want to be outside when it’s a lovely day? Give him chores to do and let him choose between work and play. In a small town where we lived, a neighbor boy told his mom that he loved going to the Slabach house to play because there was always “so much to do and so much fun”. Interesting, because our boys didn’t have the “toys” he had. One reason our guys were having so much fun is that they learned to be creative in providing their own entertainment. It also helped that they had playmate siblings (another reason for having a large family instead of a small one.)

If you own a television or DVD, you’ll find it’s a challenge not to use it as a babysitter. Turn that thing off and have only set times to watch. Our home has never had a television. Our DVD player (purchased when our kids were older) is in the living room where what anybody watches can be seen by anyone. It was not used during the week or when homework was not done, and never allowed as a free-for-all.  Your child does not need to have his own television in his room. It will only alienate him from the rest of the family. Plus, how will you limit his access?                                                                                                                                                                      

Send them outside to play. Provide games and toys that make your kids think as well as move physically. Unless it’s raining or too cold, kids should be playing outside. If you don’t have a yard, take them to a park. (That will take effort on the part of the adults, which is why it often does not happen.) A sandbox, building blocks, Legos, or tinker toys are a great way for kids to develop mobility, dexterity, and design. Watching other kids in play is not the same as making their own design, whether it’s building a clubhouse, a castle in the sandbox, or pretend-cooking over a “fire”.                                                                                                                                                                  If your kids are old enough to do these things but haven’t, then perhaps you should consider why they have never had that opportunity. One day our boys decided to build a “clubhouse”. They took remnants of their father’s construction business and hammered them together. Their creation was lopsided and crooked.  It didn’t look like much of a clubhouse. Their father was not pleased because all he could see was how crooked it was – not the type of work he did in his business! Dave didn’t want anyone to see it because he felt that it was a reflection of him. I thought the clubhouse was great! The boys were 5, 6, and 8. I viewed it as a measurement of their creativity and a case for physical exercise because they spent hours designing and building. It kept them busy outside. They also had to learn relationship skills as they disagreed on how to build this thing. How much better this activity was for them than to be sitting, eyes glued to an electronic device bringing entertainment to them instead of making their own entertainment!                                                                                                                                                                                                                    When I was a kid, we spent as much time outdoors as we could. Being inside meant we’d be tackled with work to do, so we stayed outside. Sticks or old tires for horses, making cookies, cakes, and bread in our sandbox, “churning butter” with fallen leaves or making nests for our “baby birds” out of grass clippings all served to promote agility, ingenuity, and dexterity – not to mention the fact that we slept well at night because we’d been active all day in our play. Folks used to tell our mother that she had such a creative bunch of girls. Our genetics might have played into it a little bit, but I’m convinced our creativity came mostly from our play. We were doctors and nurses, school teachers, and workers in an asylum. Some of us were patients and some of us were the medical professionals. We went on field trips, swam across “oceans” in our uncle’s pasture, built igloos in the winter, and used our mother’s garden rows as different floors in a city skyscraper. I realize now that many things we acted out portrayed what we were experiencing in our lives at the moment. It was great therapy.

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Encourage reading and imagination. Begin at birth. Sing and read. He won’t care if you can’t carry a tune in a bucket. It’s your voice he needs to hear. Books will become your child’s friend if he is read to regularly. A child can visit any country in the world by reading. A child who reads a lot will become a better speller and a deeper thinker. Not only will it help your child scholastically, but he will become more balanced in his thinking as he reads about people in other places.                                                                                                                                                                                        Imagination is a wonderful trait for a child to have and to develop. Our family was probably one of the poorest in our church, but my mother purchased one brand new book each month and we got to choose the book.This was our “reward” for working in her bakery and going along to help deliver bread (no allowance here for us!). We didn’t get an allowance, but we shared one book and took turns being the first one to read the new book.  One book for six girls! We treasured each one. Mama also took us to our local library (where we continually helped finance the library by our delinquent returns and were given more grace than we deserved because the librarian knew our deceased father). On snowy, wintry days when it was too cold to be outside, we were well supplied with books and found plenty of ideas to act out in our play. Sir Richard Steel said, “Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.” Encourage your child’s imagination instead of discouraging his making of messes because you want a tidy house or yard.

All the World’s a stage! Provide and participate (at times) with inside entertainment and problem-solving. Kids need a place where they are free to play and create. They don’t need to take over the entire house, but you need to make sure there is a place their toys can be kept that is easily accessible. Certainly, they need to clean up at the end of the day and put things away. This teaches responsibility for life in addition to giving creativity a boost. On rainy, dreary days, have tea parties (boys enjoy those too), make homemade playdough, build towers to the ceiling, and design new things with Legos or Lincoln Logs. There are board games, puzzles, and other things that can entertain kids for hours, especially if they have the attention of a parent who is participating.

A friend asked me one day how I can stand the mess of kids playing in the house. In that moment, our living room was awash of tents made out of blankets, and her kids were right in the mix. You couldn’t see the floor and there was hardly a place to sit because the furniture supported the tents they had created. “I don’t think of it as a mess; I think of it as creativity, and I just imagine in my mind how nice it will look when it’s all cleaned up,” I said.

Now, on the other side of raising kids, I’d still allow the mess and the distress and I have absolutely no regrets.

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You want your children to be able to entertain themselves? You want them to be creative, to develop their minds to their full potential? It can happen, but not without effort on your part. With your encouragement, your child can be fully capable of entertaining himself, no matter where he is or what his circumstances.

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