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  • Writer's pictureWork & Play

Five Ways to Simplify Play

“Play is not only our creative drive, it’s a fundamental mode of learning.”

-David Elkind (child psychologist, author)

Play is the foundation of childhood. From birth, we are wired to play, explore, test, and seek out experiences that enrich and add joy to our lives. While children are driven to play, today’s parents often feel the need to work to create opportunities for play. Looking at the average child’s afternoon routine is enough to exhaust us: gym classes, sports activities, enrichment courses, recitals and rehearsals. Parents have a lot to manage to allow children to “play.”

And yet, this begs the question…how did PLAY come to feel like WORK for parents? How can we simplify play for our families? While it may take some rethinking on our part, it is possible to simplify the play lives of our children. 


The first place to start is at home. If you long for stretches of time when your kiddo is engaged, screen-free, and productive, look around and see what’s being presented. Just as stores are curated to catch our attention and draw us in, our play spaces can do the same. If your kiddo has been “in charge” of their play space, it’s likely a mishmash of materials that are challenging to use and even harder to manage. Start by grabbing some bins and storing about half of what you have available. If your kiddo is old enough, ask them which 2 toys are their favorite right now. Keep out the favorites along with some other items you know they like and see what happens. Making play at home enticing and speaking to what they like is a huge part of a successful playtime at home.


This can be a tough step for parents and kids. As parents, we are apt to manage and direct play. Additionally, children often want us to play with them, frequently say “Look what I did!”  or demand our attention when they are faced with feelings associated with boredom. 

Even though it can feel tough, play is the time to step away from our kiddos. It is important to allow children to think for themselves, test, try, make a mess and even feel the discomfort of boredom. Play is integral to learning in every way. Einstein said, “Play is the highest form of research.” If we are directing or inserted into child’s play, we disrupt that learning and research. This step takes practice but stepping away is a winning strategy to simplify and encourage play.


Whenever practicing something new, whether at work or home, we benefit from having check-ins to see how things are going. If you’re feeling stressed over the way play is happening, pause and consider why it’s a struggle for you. Can you work through it? If your kiddo is having a hard time with playing on their own or with making a choice, offer some guidance and try again. Reflecting on what is working and what is not, will help play become a natural part of home time.


Here comes the part so many parents understandably dread - the mess. Play is inherently messy. Children play through all the senses. In their work, a mess will likely happen. Our best advice is to be ready for that (and lean into the discomfort if that’s where you are) and have a plan. Children are wired to play but they are also wired to be helpers! While it’s tough to see at home, by and large, when an environment is set up in a way that is accessible and not overwhelming, kiddos will be able to clean-up. This may take some practice but with clear expectations and routines, children will clean-up and be proud to do so.


This parenting thing is a moving target. Something that works today may not work tomorrow. If you’re a parent, you know flexibility is the name of the game. We can’t control every outcome. We are not the director of our children’s thinking and ideas. As adults, embracing flexible thinking, leaning into what makes us stressed and doing the work within ourselves to manage that will make an impact.

The final step is trusting the process and knowing that independent play is truly what our children need even more than adult-directed activity. As educators, we see firsthand the results of children who have had the opportunity to play. They are confident, self-assured, flexible, independent and ready for school and all it entails.

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