Ahhh summer. Long hot days filled with kid-energy just waiting to be harnessed. If you’re like me and have younger kiddos, the transition from school time to kids-home-all-the-time can be an adjustment. I start off the summer with big plans for fun activities to fill the time. But life happens and some days we still end up with me sprawled on the floor across a pile of laundry while she plays with the iPad.
I too often fall into the common idea trap that tells me I have to fill her time, I have to entertain her and be actively involved all the time, not wasting a minute of precious time with her in order to be a “good” parent. And every time I fall down that rabbit hole, I’m brutally reminded that that isn’t a reasonable expectation, for parents or for children. It’s not my job to entertain her all the time, to be her constant playmate. It’s my job to to teach her how to entertain herself, to learn how to play on her own when no immediate play buddy is available. It’s not my job to help her avoid discomfort, it’s my job to help her learn resilience in the face of discomfort, or perhaps even to use that discomfort to fuel creativity.
My dear sweet firstborn will turn five this June. Each year she grows older she gets a little more space and trust to go do her own thing in the great wild backyard. I have countless memories of playing in my own backyard growing up and all the ways we would explore and make believe. As her parent, I want to give her the safe space in which she too can explore and play the long summer days away. This allows her space to listen to her own ideas, follow her own impulses, create her own world. Pure, authentic, open-ended play.
Kids are natural explorers. Given the space they will inevitably find something to do to entertain themselves. It may be a safe and creative way and it may not be. 🙂 While it can certainly be good for them to explore those natural consequences (like how it hurts to jump off the deck stairs), I’ve found that a few little well-placed props can help guide them in the right direction.
Here are some ways to guide “productive” open-ended play this summer:
1. Clean out your old utensil drawer and put together a small bucket of pots/pans/pie pans/utensils. I got a bucket full for less than ten dollars at Goodwill. On sunny afternoons, I dump the contents out of the bucket and fill the bucket with water. This can literally entertain her for hours. She can play with the water or add mud. She can incorporate other toys for making “food” or can scoop water out to water the plants. The possibilities are endless.
2. Wood blocks. Paint. Markers. The local hardware store often has a wood scraps bin. With a small pile of wooden blocks, she can build chairs and fire pits, she can color on the blocks to turn them into books, a television, anything. Between decorating them and playing with them, the possibilities are endless!
3. A tent/fort. If you have a tent, set it up in the back yard and turn them loose to play camping adventure. If you don’t have a tent, why not do the old chairs-and-sheet trick outside? Any “shelter” can become a starting point for adventure.
4. Rock painting. Enough said.
5. A bucket of water and paint brushes. They can paint on the sidewalk, the swing set, rocks, anything. Then it dries. No cleanup!
Inside (or outside for less mess 🙂 )
1. Make a bucket list. Ask what they want on it. Don’t veto anything, just let their imagination run wild. This can help get their creative juices flowing. 🙂
2. A flashlight. Then send them to the dark basement or the dark bathroom or into a dark blanket fort.
3. Paint. I know this can be messy, but it is also a great way for kids to jump into creating. Keep it exciting by changing things up. Hit up a Hobby Lobby and buy a canvas bag or a tshirt and fabric paints for them to paint on. Have them add salt or sugar to a painting for texture. Have them paint pictures on old newspaper. Use straws to blow the paint. Paint with forks. Paint on paper plates. Ask them if they have any ideas! My four year old asked if she could use ice cubes in her paint the other day. I was skeptical, but it turned out amazing! I am framing it and hanging it in her room as a reminder to follow our ideas.
4. Hit up the dollar store or the craft store. At our local dollar store we found pipe cleaners, picture frames to decorate, glow sticks, shoe laces, etc. My four year old played with pipe cleaners, making people, trees, etc. for HOURS. I never expected them to be so popular.
5. Keep boxes and let them create with cardboard.
6. Give them a roll of tin foil and let them create! (I take it out of the box so the sharp edge isn’t a problem.) They can make bowls, car tracks, rivers, statues, etc.
7. Give them bowls with food/spices and a cup of water and let them mix and stir. We do flower and sugar and salt and pepper and occasionally some other spices like cinnamon. Then I give her bowls and spoons and water. You can even go crazy and give a bag of frozen peas or vegetables to add to the “soup”.
8. I buy old books at goodwill and let them paint and glue all over them. This is a fun art project even as an adult!
9. You know those strips of paint color samples at hardware stores? I collect handfuls of them every time I walk past. My four year old cut apart the colors and turned it into an alphabet game. With older children, we’ve take the paint color names and turned them into “paint chip poetry”. Best of all: they’re free!
10. Just let them draw! Some of my favorite creations from my kiddos came from a simple notebook and pen.
These ideas are really just a starting point. The purpose of open-ended play is to turn your child loose to discover and create. Ask them what ideas they have and then listen. Let their imagination drive the activities.
Reminders for Parents
A few things that are important for parents to remember when trying open-ended play with your kids:
1. Kids get used to the way things are. So when you change up the way “play” works, they might be a little confused at first as they learn the new “rules of the game”. It’s ok to explain to them why that they are going to practice playing on their own.
2. It can be really hard not to want to “edit” kids’ wild imaginations. But do you best not to stop anything unless it’s dangerous. Kids will figure out the natural limits on play, and it will be a more potent lesson because they learned it on their own.
3. Remember that the purpose of open-ended play is for them to discover what it is they want to try, not what you want them to try. There is no “right” way to pain or create or play. Acknowledge every effort as an act of bravery on their part, but make sure you praise the effort and not the outcome. This will encourage them to keep trying, rather than simply trying to please.
4. Most importantly, have fun!!