"Play is a child's natural language and toys are their words", Dr Garry Landreth, author of The Art of the Relationship.
Children communicate through play, they process their feelings through play, and they explore their world through play. Play is not how children "entertain" themselves and it is certainly not structured or directed. Play must be free, open-ended and intrinsically motivated, meaning it is something the child wants to do. Allowing your child plenty of unstructured play time throughout the day is not only crucial to their overall development, but it's also a great way to build relationship with your child and get to know them THROUGH their play.
"Toys must be selected, not collected" (Landreth)
This refers to choosing toys that have limitless possibilities and give the child control over how they are used. If the toy "does" something, it's not the right selection. Open ended toys include dolls, animals, cars, play-doh, crayons, balls, handcuffs, toy guns, furniture, recycled materials, blocks, magnets, and costumes.
Allow the child to lead
The best way to get to know your child is let them control the play. THEY choose the toys, THEY give each item a name, a voice, a job, and they're telling you what to do. Take a step back and try to avoid playing for the child to entertain them. Play is not for lecturing or educating. Learning and brain development are occuring naturally. Try saying things like, "Tell me what to do next" or "An what does this one say?" to return the responsibility to the child.
If a kid can do it, a kid should do it.
By allowing children to do things they're capable of doing, youre sending them the message they're capable. This lets them know you trust them and respect their abilities. Let them help you with tasks they can't do on their own. This creates a bond and sends the message, "together we can accomplish even more"
Tracking their play
Children like knowing you're watching them and noticing what they're expressing throuh play without judgement. Tracking refers to commenting on their play is an objective way using open-ended statements that may encourage the child to share more and open up about their goals in play. Things like, "That car went very fast" may inspire a response, "Yes, hes in a hurry to save someone." This allows a character building response, "Oh hes going to save someone. That shows he cares about others".
Grant in fantasy what you can't grant in reality
We all have a dark side. Let kids explore emotions, behaviors, and actions in their play that they can't otherwise in their day to day. When a child is playing with toy guns or punching a bobo bag, it doesn't mean they'll grow up to be violent and its not an opportunity to condemn or lecture. They're hitting, shooting, punching in their play to relieve aggression naturally just like as adults we may go for a run or do yard work. It's perfectly healthy to allow kids to explore ALL aspects of self in play so that they DONT do it in reality.
Observe your childs play and jump in when expressly invited. Let this be a time where they can do no wrong. Only set limits when limits need to be set and trust them to explore freely and safely.
Parenting expert, blogger, inventor, single mom to twins, barefoot nomad, adventure seeker, boho spirit, advocate of play