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The Year I learned to Play with My Kids

Updated: Aug 19, 2022

As sad as it sounds, over a year ago I had no idea how to play with my kids or encourage meaningful independent play. In fact, the idea of pretending to eat play food while sitting in a princess costume was something I desperately avoided. Around this time I also found out my husband, master of entertaining kids, was deploying for almost a year. Oh—we were also 6 months into a pandemic with no end in sight.

A lot raced through my mind when we received that phone call. One thing that I continued to ask myself was “who was going to play with the kids?” How was I going to cook dinner and play with them at the same time? How was I going to do anything with a 1-year-old and 3-year-old constantly begging to be entertained?

We did not have a huge, curated, playroom. Most of our toys were gifts our kids received from friends and family (which there is nothing wrong with). Before the pandemic, we would spend our weekends out exploring – not at home playing inside. Buying developmentally-appropriate toys was not on our radar.

As a lot of parents did when the lockdowns first started, I went online and ordered several colorful toys that we hoped would buy us a few minutes here and there. A bounce house was one of those few desperate purchases and that remains a win in my book. The rest of these toys were taking up space, sadly screaming (read: beeping) to be played with.

I was spending money on things that were not making our situation any better. I began observing my kids playing with their toys. I read a ton about child development, learning through play, the role play has in cognitive, physical, social and emotional growth. I'm nowhere close to being an expert in this, but I realized we needed to make some major changes.

This rabbit hole I ran down ultimately led me to open-ended toys.

What classifies a toy as open-ended? Open-ended toys allow children to be creative and make choices. These toys, by definition, do not have a predetermined use. I was drawn to the idea that toys could serve a wide range of ages for multiple purposes, effectively replacing all those little pieces in all the toys they had at the time.

Around this time I also began actively playing with my kids more. For me, this meant getting down on the floor and modeling play alongside them. They would turn to me and ask questions about what I was building/creating and how it worked. A lot of times this opened up a great dialogue that then gave them new ideas for play moving forward.

The combination of adding more open-ended toys, making an effort to curate developmentally-appropriate toys for my kids, and sitting down on the floor and playing alongside my kids helped my family immensely. I could see my oldest daughter challenging herself in unexpected ways, improving her communication skills, and her ability to problem solve. My youngest happily played independently for significant periods of time—something we never experienced when our first born was her age.

Are you having a hard time with independent play? I plan to share a few things that worked for us here.

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