Although we know play is important, and that it develops in its own way, as adults we are often left wondering just how to support play development in our children. How do we honor true play at each developmental stage? How do we encourage the back and forth, reciprocal interactions that are so essential for developing neurological capacity? For Joey, it’s all about following his lead and responding to his interests. I often need to forget my own structured plan, and be willing to be a bit flexible in my hour with Joey so that I stretch out his happier moments into playful exchanges.
For Joey’s birthday his grandfather gave him a large stuffed dinosaur. Joey’s recently taken an interest in dinosaurs, and this large one is excellent for Joey’s current play stage. Although he is not necessarily ready to use it to act out a dinosaur scene in a symbolic play stage, it allows us other fun ways to play. Once Joey is ready for that symbolic play stage, it will be easy to make the leap into deeper symbolic play with the dinosaur.
For now, Joey and I can engage with the dinosaur through a series of back and forth interactions. I slowly make the dinosaur come toward Joey to “eat” him, and Joey giggles in anticipation. “He’s gonna… get… your… arm!” I say, and make the dinosaur pretend to eat Joey’s arm. Although I am acting out a symbolic play scene, Joey’s play here is in his enjoyment of the back and forth interactions. While he may understand that I am pretending to be the dinosaur, his real work through play is in the anticipation of the dinosaur coming, and wondering where it would “eat” him next. Sometimes I ask Joey where the dinosaur should eat next, and Joey will touch his head, raise a leg, or an arm.
This “I’m going to get you game” can take so many forms, and can be played in so many ways. I often play it with my own three year old on our walk back from dropping her older sister off at the bus stop. I chase her down the side walk, occasionally grabbing her and tickling her. “I’m gonna… get you!” The game can be played sitting on the floor, and doesn’t require a stuffed animal or toy. It can be done with a scarf, a feather, or even a toy car as long as you are gentle and responsive to what your child’s enjoyment. The essential aspect to remember is to follow the child’s lead and attend to their facial expressions. If they are not excited about the game, stop, and come back at another time. In order for this to be play, the child must be engaged, happy, and responding to you.
Of course, another aspect of Joey’s play with the dinosaur is just exploring it. He loves to stick his hand into the dinosaur’s mouth and pull at his tongue. He feels his hand around the felt teeth ridges, and rubs his hands over the dinosaur’s long neck. Sometimes, he puts the dinosaur in his mouth, to further explore the softness of the dinosaur’s fur. These acts too, are play for Joey. In my rush to complete my planned activities, I can sometimes forget to sit and honor these moments when Joey is exploring and discovering his toys. Yet these small moments are play, and I can support him by holding the dinosaur close to him.
As adults, I think we forget how spontaneous play can be. If I’m going to plan for my own play or downtime, I set up my schedule around it to be sure that I’ll fit everything in. Yet with Joey, if I insist on my own given schedule, I may miss out on some important developmental moments. I don’t need to plan anything big with Joey. Instead, I can respond to him when I notice he is engaged in examining an object. I can use what he is interested in to draw him into engaging with me, and then pull out back and forth reciprocal play. It can happen between the books we read, or even during our calendar lessons. Of course, there are times when we need to work before we can get to our play, because that is how life is for all of us. But I try to remember to allow Joey to fit play into our sessions.