Many parents are doubling down on their kids’ homeschooling and/or distance learning schedules, trying to make sure that they’re getting the same academic ”rigor” as they got when they were in school.  This may be a laudable objective, but it can easily run into problems.  Homes are not set up like schools, consequently it’s inevitable that home life will influence a child’s schedule (e.g. the TV is right near by, snacks are available in the fridge, family members come and go etc.).  Add to this that a hard-driven home school or distance learning schedule can create many stress-related symptoms (just as they often do in school) such as stomach-aches, anxiety, head-aches, insomnia, low energy, and attention problems.

All this suggests that parents need to lighten the load somewhat and leaven their children’s home schooling or distance learning schedule with some fun.  That’s where play comes in.  I want to suggest that parents break up their kids’ formal study sessions and provide ample time for them to engage in free unstructured play.

I’m not talking about playing video games. I’m referring to open-ended child-centered explorations that are not dependent on adult direction or adult authority, but where instead the child is involved in some of the following activities:

  • Imaginative journeys
  • Intrinsically valuable creations and processes
  • Inherently rewarding explorations of the world
  • Self-directed experiences and challenges
  • Ever-changing limits and rules

I’m talking here about everything from making mud pies in the backyard, to dressing up as princesses and knights, to enacting military battles with toy soldiers or action figures, to playing health care professionals and patients (particularly important in this pandemic for kids to work out their fears), to transforming an empty cardboard box into a rocket ship to Mars,  a school bus, or any of a thousand other possibilities.

And while many of these activities are particularly well-suited to primary school kids, older children can also benefit from open-ended play (some older kids may want to create elaborate imaginative cities, for example, from clay or Legos, or write imaginative stories (not to be graded or even read by adults), or have fun with home-made musical instruments, a set of binoculars, a bubble-blowing session, or a ”ball game” in the house (using balloons) with made-up rules.

Parents need to understand that play is as important to a child’s overall social, emotional, and cognitive well-being as school-related activities (and perhaps even more so).  Here are four reasons why you should plan to build in ”play oases” on weekdays when your kids can get a reprieve from the computer screen or the textbooks and worksheets of their home schooling or distance learning program, and engage in fun activities of their own choosing.

  1. Play Develops Social Skills.  Kids try out social roles when they play (even when they play alone).  As noted above, playing at being doctor, nurse, and/or patient, can help work out some of the anxieties of going through this current pandemic.  When kids play ”house” they internalize some of the roles played by parents and siblings, and this can help defuse tensions between family members.  When they get together to plan a refrigerator-box ”trip” to Mars, they learn to differentiate different roles (who will ride in the rocket ship, who will be in communication from Earth, who will repair the ship etc.).
  2. Play Stimulates Cognitive Abilities.  Kids have to think through situations and processes when they’re making up play scenarios. When a child is engaged in building a city with Legos for example, he has to essentially do some city planning (where does the mayor live?, where do the police have their station?, what sorts of planning measures are they making in case of a pandemic?).  Even with simple wooden blocks, kids learn about gravity, architectural design, and cause and effect (too many blocks on one side of a structure may cause it to collapse etc.).
  3. Play Nurtures Emotional Growth.  As noted above, play activities can help work out anxieties and fears related to both internal and external events (such as the current pandemic).  Kids can play ”mother” to a ”child” doll and create an atmosphere of trust and love in the relationship. Kids racing toy trucks across the living room carpet discharge aggressive feelings that they might otherwise direct against siblings.  Playing with puppets that represent ghosts, ghouls, or monsters, can help allay deep fears about the unknown.
  4. Play Fuels Creativity and Innovation.   When a child takes a cardboard box that used to hold a refrigerator and turns it into an animal hospital, a library, or an air traffic control tower, they are essentially doing something remarkable:  they are taking what ”is” (e.g. the box itself), and combining it with what ”could be” (e.g. images from their own imagination), and making something new.  This is the creative process in action.

Many great individuals in history have compared their activities with children at play. Isaac Newton, for example, once said: ‘‘I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea shore and diverting himself and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary while the greater ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.’’  Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin, once said: ‘’I play with microbes.  It is very pleasant to break the rules.’’  It’s not an overstatement to say that civilization itself, from the bottom up, was built by playful individuals.

While real play for children happens when they are the creators and directors of the activities, that doesn’t mean you need to totally stand aside.  Your kids may invite you into their ”play space” and if they do, this is an opportunity to be a playful role model for your kids.  It may feel hard to resist the tendency to want to direct things (”hey, kids, why don’t we make the box into a skyscraper?”), but keep in mind that while engaged in play, they are the leaders and you are the follower.

For more information on the importance of playfulness in learning and child development, see my book If Einstein Ran the Schools: Revitalizing U.S. Education.

This page was brought to you by Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. and

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About the author

I’m the author of 20 books including my latest, a novel called Childless, which you can order from Amazon.

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2 Responses
  1. “I’m not talking about playing video games. I’m referring to open-ended child-centered explorations that are not dependent on adult direction or adult authority”

    The fact that you see those as incompatible tells me that you don’t really know anything about video games.

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