Parenting • Nov 19, 2012

The Underwear Machine: Teaching Kids Creative Play

When my first two kids were in kindergarten and second grade, they stopped playing together.  They started fighting over anything and everything.  My mommy heart missed that beautiful creative play that they had shared as toddlers, playing dress-up and house.  As  a pediatrician, I knew they needed creative play for their brain development.  Research keeps showing that creative play develops kinds of brain functions that are important down the road in higher levels of math and science – as well as intellectual, social and emotional development.  So why do our kids stop their make-believe games, fort-building, and other creative play?  How can we get them back to real-kid play?

Once my kids started school they didn’t have time to play together anymore.   On school nights we had four hours from the time they got home from school until bedtime.  In that four hours, they had to accomplish homework, chores, piano practice, dinner, bath and bedtime.  Add in scouts or soccer practice and something else had to give.  Free playtime was never a priority.  And I had stopped enjoying parenting—I had become a driver and an enforcer.  It seemed my job as a mom had been reduced to getting kids into the car and shuttling them to activities.  Something had to change.

We quit most of our extracurricular activities.  No more ballet.  No more soccer for my oldest.  We started teaching religious education at home, ourselves.  Now, our kids are home more.  Our house is more peaceful.  I spend less time getting angry at kids.  And my six and eight-year-old have started to play creatively together again.

Last week I wrote about choosing the right extracurricular activities for your kids.  But just because you cut down on activities doesn’t mean your kids will use their time well.  Here are my seven tricks to get your kids away from screens and organized activities and back into creative play.

1)      Limit TV and computer time.  Every single kid in my son’s second grade class said that they watched TV every day after school.  It’s not that TV and computer are so bad themselves—it’s about the time lost.  What aren’t your kids doing when they are watching TV or playing computer/video games?  Don’t be fooled by supposedly educational TV and computer programs—many provide a limited amount of educational content, but kids miss out on creative play with siblings.

2)      Assign chores:  Are you tired of hearing “I’m bored!” and whining for TV and computer?  Tell them it’s time for chores.  Free play time isn’t fun if you don’t have to work for it.  After chores, free play time is as exciting as school recess.  While my kids do chores, they start talking about their plans for their creative play.  Once chores are done, they are eager to carry out their plans.  Many parents don’t expect kids to do nightly chores because they want their kids to focus on homework.  But even 15 minutes per night of kitchen cleaning or trash will teach lessons that will last a lifetime.  Even toddlers can do chores—find age-appropriate tasks like changing hand-towels or stocking toilet paper.  Try to do kitchen chores and yard work together as a family.

3)      It’s OK to ask older kids to care for younger kids.  Responsibilities towards younger kids naturally transition into creative play with younger siblings.  How else will you teach your kids to be a parent?  Do you want your kids to learn parenting from you or from a book?

4)      Cook together.  Cooking is creativity, art, and science all mixed together.  Start with really easy stuff like scrambled eggs or sandwich making, and don’t be afraid to serve this for family dinner.  Talk about your day while you cook.  “Chef” will soon become the favorite chore.

5)      Keep toys that encourage creativity: dress up clothes, blocks, plastic animals, Legos.  Keep them organized enough that they can actually be played with.

6)      Encourage outdoor play:  Pretend-play and active play are usually much easier outside.  A bush can become a house, elves can live under trees, and before you know it your neighborhood can become a magic kingdom without a trip to Disney World.   Outdoor play often becomes active play, which is great exercise.

7)      Appreciate what your children have created.  Be the “baby” in a game of house.  Learn to love their bad magic show or play that lacks a plot.  Help them improve their creativity when they are stuck.  If you get bored, you can always play hide-and-seek, no matter what age.

Last week my six and eight-year-old created an “underwear machine” that catapulted a storage basket full of toddler underwear into the air.  As the underwear basket fell, it turned on a light and launched a toy space-ship.  My three-year-old dressed up in a magician costume and the older kids taught him how to be master of ceremonies.  And my husband and I got to watch.  And the dishes and homework were already done.  This is better than soccer.