It is probably no surprise to most moms that children love to play. Playing is not only essential for kids to get their wiggles out, but a certain type of play is critical for brain development and allows children to gain all the skills they need physically, socially, cognitively, creatively, and emotionally. This kind of play is called “purposeful play” and parents and teachers should try to encourage their children to engage in it as often as they can.
What is purposeful play?
Purposeful play is an enjoyable activity that allows children to make meaning out of their experiences. When children play, they are building imagination, developing reading, language, math and science skills, solving problems, and building social skills, among other things. Purposeful play requires a little bit of thought and foresight on the part of the parent, but it can be achieved pretty easily. Here are some benefits and examples of purposeful play activities:
Types of Purposeful Play
Blocks & Building
Children who build with blocks, or stack and dump blocks, or those who build a structure like a fort are learning cooperation, gross motor skills, problem solving, and building muscles.
A great way to encourage this type of play is with legos. Both of my children love legos. They could spend hours building “towers” with them. When we need a go-to play activity, legos are it. To make lego play even more challenging, encourage your kids to build monochromatic towers or to create a tower using colors to make a pattern. Help them to get creative in their building play!
Dramatic & Social Play
When kids play “house” or “school,” or give voices to their dolls, or pretend to be something, they are learning skills such as communication and taking turns, roles and relationships, empathy and expressing emotions.
My kids love to play in a homemade fort and pretend they’re camping. Sometimes I’ll give them some plastic plates and cups and cutlery and they pretend they’re having a picnic. Encouraging your kids to pretend by building a fort, or a puppet show, or encouraging your daughter to play house with her Barbies or your son to pretend to be a superhero are all ways they can practice dramatic & social play.
Painting, drawing, cutting and pasting, playing with play-doh, or stringing beads or macaroni helps children develop creativity, learn about cause and effect, use small muscles of the hands and fingers, develop patience and learn colors.
Art play is a favorite of ours. My four-year-old daughter no longer takes naps, so we have instilled a “quiet time” that she does while her little brother takes his nap. She stays in her room and she is allowed to play quietly. One of the ways I’ve found to keep her completely engaged in her quiet time is by installing an “art cart” in her room. I bought a three-tiered cart from IKEA and I stocked it full of coloring books, blank paper, crayons, colored pencils, washable markers, stickers, glue, and kiddie scissors. Every day, she comes out of her rest time with several new masterpieces that she has worked hard to create. She loves her art cart and I love the time I have all to myself!
Playing with puzzles encourages children to problem solve, sort items, see how things fit together, and master hand-eye coordination.
Puzzles are an easy way to promote purposeful play. They can be found everywhere! There are large floor puzzles that are perfect for younger kids as well as smaller, more complex puzzles for bigger kids. You can even make your own puzzles. One of the easiest ways to make a beginner puzzle is by printing an image or photo on a piece of card stock, pasting it to several large wood craft sticks (the ones that look like giant popsicle sticks) and then, using a craft knife, slicing the pieces apart. Give your child all the separated pieces and watch him figure out how to put the image back together!
When kids play instruments, sing, listen to music, or dance they are also learning about creative and emotional expression, about sounds and tempo and pitch, and about body awareness and movement.
One of my favorite ways to encourage purposeful play though music is by having a dance party every day! Usually we dance while I’m cooking dinner, but sometimes we’ll stop everything in the middle of the day and just groove our little hearts out. The kids love it and, I have to admit, I love it too!
Kids who listen to a story, pretend to read, look at pictures and turn pages are learning about language and vocabulary, how to express ideas, how to interpret pictures, and reading and writing skills.
One way we encourage a love of books is by reading to our kids every night. We also try to keep all of their books accessible to them at all times and I do my best to say yes if either of my children ask me to read to them randomly during the day. It’s hard sometimes, but I never want to discourage their love of books!
With just a little foresight and a little effort on your part, you can encourage your children to engage in purposeful play in so many ways. Set up their play area with stations for each category of play so that they are free to choose which activity to engage in at any given time. Remember, purposeful play is supposed to be enjoyable for kids, so give them plenty of options. And don’t forget to have fun with them when you have the chance!