Childhood outside, squatting, looking down with hands just above the sidewalk
Child playing with wooden trains and bridges while another child watches
Child lying on floor playing with a pretend coffee set

Play at Home

Many of us have found ourselves, in the past year, playing with our children at home more than we ever thought we would. Playing outside, when we can, is helpful, but sometimes we can't even get out the door.

The PTLL believes that outdoor play is outrageously important. It's a common saying that there's "no bad weather, only bad gear." We don't disagree. But we also recognize that access to outdoor play is not equitable. Some of us can't afford "good gear." Some of us don't have a backyard or a safe street for play or parks/playgrounds nearby. Some of us don't have the ability to spend much time supervising outdoor play. Some of us may not have the physical ability to spend a lot of time outdoors or chasing young children down the street.

 

For so many reasons, sometimes we just cannot get outdoors. And even if we do spend a lot of time outside, we still need ideas for inside play, too.

Meeting our children's play needs in our own home can sometimes feel like an impossible task -- but it's not. Or at least sometimes it's not. Nothing will ever go according to plan when young children are involved, but here are some ways to encourage play at home.

Some of these ideas involve mess. While we think that messy play is great for a child's development, we encourage you not to surpass your own level of mess tolerance. A stressed out grown-up does not make for a fun play session! Think about putting down towels or old sheets/tablecloths, containing messy play in the bathtub, or taking it outside if you can.

Ideas for Playing at Home

  • Add water. Outdoor water play seems obvious, but even inside, you can fill bins, pots, and pans with water and give your children cups, ladles, or measuring scoops to move it back and forth. Put down some towels, or move the whole activity to the bathtub if you want to really contain the mess.

  • Play card games, from Go Fish and Uno to more complex games, depending on your child's age and ability.

  • Board games, too, are usually a hit.

  • DIY sensory bin. You can fill a bin with whatever you have on hand--kinetic sand or just plain rice--and mix in small toys or other objects that your child can "hunt" for.

  • Dance party! Have each family member add 1-3 songs to a playlist, turn it on, and have a blast.

  • Or have a singing "contest." Let everyone belt out their favorites; judging is optional--maybe everyone "wins" a movie night afterward.

  • Build an obstacle course. If you have a safe area for active play, let your kids build obstacles with toys, throw pillows, chairs to crawl under, and anything else they can find (and are allowed to use!).

  • Play games that build impulse control, like Freeze Dance or Red Light, Green Light.

  • Set up a laundry basket and practice tossing small objects into it--bean bags, soft balls, stuffed animals.

  • Have an indoor scavenger hunt. Give your kids a list of items to search for--draw or print pictures if they can't read yet.

  • Grab the couch cushions, pillows, blankets and actually build a fort!

  • Save up reusable "trash" for a maker station that's all about creative reuse. Hang on to those cardboard boxes, cool-looking packaging, popsicle sticks, toilet paper/paper towel rolls, and more. Give your kids some markers, crayons, tape, and/or glue, and see what creations they come up with.

  • Find a recipe for homemade play-dough (like ours), slime, or other sensory stuff, and see how it works out!

  • Let your kids paint the bathtub with washable tempura paint.

  • Tell your kids that they get to make up their own game, then be sure to follow the rules they think up.

  • Use toys or other unexpected objects to paint with: for instance, let them dip a Lego block in paint and then see what designs they can make with it.

  • Ask your child to think of a new way to play. Sometimes they come up with amazing ideas!

Children benefit most when they are able to engage a variety of different types of play. Ideally, a child will have opportunities to play alone, with other children, and with parents/caregivers.

 

The PTLL is particularly concerned with promoting playful interactions between parents/caregivers and their children, but independent play and social play are both also highly important, especially as children grow and develop.

 

Below, we share a few ideas for promoting independent play, child-caregiver play, and social play between children.

Independent Play

Both parent and child benefit when a child can have fun playing alone. Parents/guardians are able to attend to tasks such as work, cleaning, or drinking a still-warm cup of coffee. Children develop skills such as self-reliance, imagination, and focus. Children who are comfortable with independent play are less likely to complain of boredom when a playmate is unavailable. Even in a household where playmates are plentiful, a child's comfort with independent play may really come in handy on those occasions that conflicts seem insurmountable!

Tips for encouraging independent play:

  • Think open-ended toys! Open-ended toys include anything that can be used in a variety of ways. When a toy is "prescribed" to be used in a specific way, a child is likely to grow bored with it more quickly. Open-ended toys, on the other hand, encourage imaginative play. Open-ended toys include...

    • Blocks or other building toys: wooden blocks, plastic blocks (LEGO/DUPLO or otherwise), magnetic tiles, marble runs, or anything else that can be built, taken apart, and built again differently

    • Animal figures -- pets, farm animals, wild animals, dinosaurs -- or people/dolls

    • Vehicle toys: cars, trucks, trains--anything that goes

    • Toys that encourage pretend play such as baby dolls, play food, or dress-up clothes

  • Open-ended toys do NOT need to be fancy or expensive. Think about items that your child can reuse

    • Cardboard boxes can be cars, rocket ships, castles, or anything else your child can imagine

    • As mentioned above, consider maintaining a "creative reuse" box filled with different types of "trash" that your child can repurpose for play or art. Depending on your child's age, this might include different types of packaging, popsicle sticks, empty toilet paper/paper towel rolls, extra buttons, lids, egg cartons...anything you've got!

    • We've got plenty of toys for borrowing, too!

  • Rotate new toys. Especially if your child has a large amount of toys, keep some out and some put away. After some time, bringing out the "new" toys will make them seem shiny and exciting again. Even better, rotate toys by making use of our lending library!

  • Be positive and encouraging. Let your child know that independent play is a fun option for them, not a punishment.

  • Independent play can be encouraged from infancy.

    • Babies and toddlers (and reluctant older children) can play independently without being alone. They'll feel supported with you in the same room, and you can switch your attention between your child and another task

  • Start small! Five or ten minutes of independent play should be celebrated, not seen as a failure. The amount of time can be gradually increased.

  • Prioritize unscheduled, unstructured play time. If your family maintains a busy routine, it's especially important to make sure that your child has the time and space for independent play.

  • If you have multiple children who typically play together, try to make sure each has the time and space to play alone sometimes as well

Playing Together with Your Child

Do you generally enjoy playing with your child? Or do you dread it sometimes?

 

Would it make you feel better to know we've heard "I don't play" or "I don't like to play" from many parents/caregivers of young children? Many of us grew up with parents who didn't exactly play with us. Some of us might have found that fine and have no real desire to play with our kids. Others of us really want to play with our kids, but we aren't exactly sure how. If you find pretend play to be exhausting, you're not alone -- many grown-ups do.

Tips for playing with your kid:

  • Quantity is not everything! If you feel as though you must play with your child for hours on end, you're likely to burn yourself out. It's okay to set time limits and start small. If this is tough for you, aim for just 5-10 minutes each day or one 30-60 minute play session per week.

  • Try to have fun. It can be hard to focus fully on play when there are a million important tasks looming, and it can be hard not to think of playtime as just one more thing to check off the to-do list. But do your best to let the joy of your child's presence calm you. Play is good for grown-ups, too!

  • Be truly present. Even if it's just for 5 or 10 minutes, put your phone away and focus on your child.

  • Let the child lead, as much as possible. Let your child choose the game and direct the play. Following your child's lead will show them that you value them and approve of their choices, and you may learn a lot about them just by following along.

  • If an interaction can be made playful, it's a chance to connect with your child (and can also help get their cooperation!). Turn clean-up time into a round of Simon Says. Play peek-a-boo with your baby during a diaper change. Transform into the "Clothes-Changing Monster" when your toddler is anti-pants.

  • Describe what your child is doing, to show you're engaged.

  • Imitate! Join them in their activity. Whatever they are doing, do it right alongside them.

  • If you have more than one child, try to set aside "special time" for one-on-one play with each. It might not always be possible, but even just 10 minutes or so spent playing one-on-one can really recharge a caregiver-child relationship.

Social Play

Between Children

Play among children is also very important! This may be more limited in COVID times, and your children's at-home playmates may be nonexistent or siblings only, but here are some general things to remember and think about when your child plays with other children.

Tips for encouraging social play:

  • Keep developmental milestones in mind! It is typical for children to only begin engaging in what looks like social play around age 4.

    • Infants and young toddlers mostly just play alone. They might have awareness of others and interact (especially with people who they recognize), but they do not play socially. It is typical for their play to be focused on exploring, with a lot of handling and mouthing of any object within reach.

    • Toddlers and preschoolers commonly engage in parallel play. They may play near each other but not together. This type of play is very important, as children observe and learn from one another.

    • Starting around age 3, children may engage in associative play, which can be seen as a sort of bridge between parallel play and true social play. Children may play together, but they do not cooperate or develop a joint plan for play. They may be playing in separate "worlds" that just happen to intersect here and there.

    • Beginning around age 4 or 5, children typically start to engage in cooperative play. This is what many people think of as "real" social play. Children may work together to plan their play, assigning roles (e. g., "you're the teacher, and we'll be the kids in class") or developing story lines together.

    • These are only rough stages for play: not every child will move through them in exactly this way, or at these specific ages, and many will move into and out of different types of social play.

  • Younger children may have an easier time with turn taking rather than sharing. Encourage your child to wait their turn and to give up a toy for a bit if another child is waiting for a turn.

  • When children disagree about the design or rules of their play, help them find a compromise, and name what you're doing. "This way, you both get a little of what you want."

  • Help your child develop the ability to understand another child's perspective. You might say things like, "Hmm, her face looks scrunched up, and she's sniffling. How do you think she feels right now?" or "I wonder how you'd feel if your friend did that to you."

  • Give your children words to use when conflicts arise. For instance, if your child is upset that another child took their toy, you could say, "Oh, you're upset that your friend is using the truck. Tell her, 'I feel sad that you got the truck first. I wanted to play with the truck. Can I have a turn next?'"

  • When major conflicts occur, work with your child on problem-solving techniques: state the problem, brainstorm possible solutions, and choose a solution that everyone can agree to. Talk your child through these steps until they get the hang of it.

  • Slowly decrease your involvement as your child builds the skills needed to solve problems. Be available for help, but allow the children room to figure things out before you step in.

  • Sibling interactions are further complicated by constant close proximity and constant competition for everything from toys to caregiver attention. Help your kids get along better by giving them the same type of techniques to resolve their own conflicts, but also recognize that it can be more challenging and may require more frequent mediation. Making sure each child has their own space somewhere is important, as is spending one-on-one time with each child.