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I Spy With My Little Eye: Children Who Love To Play

Do you remember what it was like to be a child? What do you remember about play? Did you know that children need to play freely in order to grow and develop properly? Play is not only important to childhood, it is vital. Read to see how you can remember your own childhood and use those memories to help you be a happier parent of a happier child.

Maria Montessori, Fred Rogers, and me. Not exactly a natural grouping of names. The other two were incredibly beautiful souls with much education and practice in the area of early childhood education. I, on the other hand, stumble happily along in their well loved footsteps.

I, like these heroes of mine, love and embrace the life stage we call childhood. I have seen first hand the profound impact that these very early years have on the rest of a human lifespan. This stage of life sets the foundation of all we will be throughout our lifetimes.

As a mother, grandmother, and early childhood educator the importance of the earliest years of life gives me a sense of urgency. I want parents everywhere to have the tools they need to raise their little ones to be healthy in every way: physically, emotionally, mentally. Strong, wise parents make all the difference to any society.

Those of us who truly love little children and are deeply involved in helping children have the best life possible know one thing above all else: play is the work of childhood.

The Divine Miss M (Dr. Maria Montessori) typically gets credit for saying this first, but there are thousands of us throughout the decades that have repeated it as loudly and as often as we can. Children must play if they are to develop properly.

There is, of course, some explanation necessary if we are to help our children engage in the kind of play that Maria Montessori was talking about. This sort of play is lightly and lovingly supervised by adults, led by the child, and engages the child's mind. It does not have to involve things that look like toys. Play can be purposeful if it includes a few very simple objects. Children in true Montessori schools often play by folding small tshirts or shorts. Anything that a child can hold, touch, or manipulate can be a toy.

When I was a child I had in our backyard a bakery shop. It was a cinder block retaining wall on which I placed countless tasty mud pies and cakes. They were decorated carefully with twigs and pebbles. I interacted with customers in my mind and concocted new recipes to experiment with. More dirt from the front yard, a few leaves from underneath the apple tree, a special orangeish pebble found by the driveway. I was seldom interrupted, and never told that the grubby mess I had made was unsightly and had to be cleaned up. I still remember very clearly how to create a bake shop for mud pies. It made me happy.

How can you use the wisdom of the great early childhood teachers to help your child be happier, learn better, and develop as they should? I have listed here a few points that are absolutely vital to helping your child learn to play in a healthy manner. The ability to play like this is the best thing you can do for your children this summer. Or any time.

1. Happy, healthy play is focused. One of Maria Montessori's greatest insights was that children who can focus and concentrate are actually happier and learn better. This is the single greatest reason I know of to avoid over reliance on electronic games. The ever shifting scenes, the computer generated sounds, the rapid fire action requires children's brains to flit from one thing to the next rather than focus on a task that requires more thought. When children focus on slower paced play they are absorbed in deeper levels of planning. They are able to experience the satisfaction of completing a project when they have been able to set the pace of their project. In computer games, the game creator sets the pace and not the child. Guide your child to activities that require focus. Example: Getting a ball in a hole or cup by tossing it or hitting it with another object. A solo game of mini golf, or an indoor mini golf with a paper cup and a ball. Golf clubs are entirely optional. Corn hole, Toss Across, etc. All of these games develop hand/eye coordination, require focus, and are enjoyable when played alone. Provide bean bags, small balls, targets. Indoors or out, these simple games are very absorbing.

2. Let the child lead the way. Over orchestrating a child's play time is very tempting. As adults we want to control as much as we can, but high quality play is an individual activity that the child must lead. Provide a few simple objects, a safe space, some gentle supervision and let the child find their way. You may wish to start by sitting near your child and playing with the objects yourself. Be very quiet and play as though you were a child again. Your child will soon become absorbed in focused play.

3. Use everyday objects for toys. As I mentioned earlier, many Montessori schools have folding clothes as an available activity. Why don't you put a few of your child's shirts and shorts in a basket and invite them to fold and sort them? Better still, invite them to help when it is time to fold the family laundry. What about doing what many busy mothers did during the early to mid twentieth century and let your child have some real pots and pans with lids and spoons? I had a low to the floor kitchen cabinet that contained kitchen tools my children were free to play with as I prepared meals. They were entertained, focused, and near me. We all felt good about that. A plastic colander with pipe cleaners to stick in the holes is wonderful for developing fine motor skills, and you don't have to pay the outrageous price that a "Mellissa And Doug" version of this would have. Invite your child into your world by allowing them safe access to real life objects.

Children's play should engage all of their senses. Their play must have freedom and joy attached to it. It shouldn't be overly orchestrated, but have many avenues for the imagination to explore. Play has purpose. Play is powerful. Play is vital. Remember what childhood is all about: play, exploration, interpretation, seeking, learning, wondering. Remember what it was like to be a child.

If you were properly loved and nurtured, celebrate that by passing it on. If you were not, break the cycle and begin now with your child to create a new space where children are precious and valued. Enjoy, teach, love! This is the heart of parenting.

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