Play is an essential part of growing up.
When your child plays freely, he satisfies his curiosity and finds out how to use objects; he learns to plan and classify; he begins to evaluate, predict, question, discover, draw conclusions, and solve problems; and he also learns how to interact with his peers and imitate the people around him. A child whose play is not controlled and channeled by adults (“The colors in that painting should really be blue and green.” “If you pile any more blocks up, your building will fall.”) gains confidence through play and rarely has a fear of failure.
Some parents minimize the importance of play, looking instead for “educational” or prepackaged activities for their child. But your child really doesn’t need these in order to learn. You can nurture his drive to learn by following up on his interests, giving him many opportunities to play, and providing appropriate toys and materials.
A four-or five-year-old child will like using arts and crafts materials such as pens, pencils, markers, scissors, tape, glue, string, play dough, clay, watercolors, tempera (which can be mixed with soap flakes to help prevent stains), and finger paints. Wagons, Big Wheels, scooters, and bikes with or without training wheels are fun, as are balls, bats, frisbees, bubble blowers, kites, bowling pins, balance boards, old tires to swing or jump on, and bean bags to toss. While games like Candy Land, Hungry Hungry Hippos, Sorry, and various matching games are popular, young children often don’t play by the rules because they don’t want to lose. If this is the case with your child, choose other activities he enjoys, and trust that as he gets older, he’ll want to follow the rules.
You can also give your child practical things to play with, such as flashlights; magnifying glasses; whistles; simple tools; old household objects he can safely take apart; a bank and coins; child-size rakes and snow shovels; a funnel, pump, and eggbeater to use while playing with water and bubbles; and a large plastic needle with yarn for sewing burlap. Your child may enjoy building with Tinker Toys, Legos, and all kinds of blocks, and may want to make forts and houses out of blankets or large cardboard boxes. You can help your child make a puppet theater from a table turned on its side; he can run the show with play tickets, play money, and a toy cash register. A toy (or real) microphone is fun for kids who like to sing and dance. A child this age is influenced by his friends and by TV, and may want whatever toy other children have.
When you provide toys for a child of any age, avoid giving too many that limit creative play. So many toys can only be put together and used in one way, and if your child spends all his time with such toys, he’ll have little chance to make his own creations. Instead look for toys that can be used in a variety of ways and ones that allow him to use his imagination. For example, instead of buying kits of shrinkable plastic with pre-drawn pictures, buy the same plastic, without the drawings, at a craft store. Then your child can make his own designs.
As you buy toys, you may find that your child becomes intensely interested in a new plaything for several weeks and then loses interest. This is common, although it may be disturbing if you’ve spent time and energy shopping for the right toy, one your child said he “wanted so badly.” He loses interest for several reasons: he may have quickly exhausted all the toy’s play possibilities, he may have mastered the toy, figuring out how it works, or he may be frustrated because it isn’t made well or is difficult to use.
To get more use from your child’s discarded but almost-new toys, put them away in a closet for several months. When you take them out, they’ll seem unfamiliar to your child, and he may become interested in them again. He may even think of new ways to play with them, since his interests and his play are always changing.
They often play out real experiences or feelings. In pretend “school,” a child can be the teacher and fantasize about having control. “You need to stop talking.” “It’s time to hear a story.” When they play house, they take roles that make them feel comfortable. One might choose to be a decision-making parent, while another wants to be a baby who cries and needs nurturing. Superhero play lets children feel strong and powerful. Some parents object to imaginary violence; however, pretend fighting games are a normal part of play. If parents are watchful, such games won’t get out of control.
Many kids get involved in big, dramatic projects, building a fort, designing a haunted house or a house out of blankets, putting on a puppet show, or creating a garden. They thrive on these activities and proudly show off the results.
If your child has an interest in such projects, offer him support. If, for example, he wants to build, help him find materials. He’ll make good use of large boxes, scraps of wood, sheets, and blankets. Once he’s carried out a large project, he’ll feel successful and competent.
In one neighborhood, five-year-olds wanted to put on a play. Parents provided dress-up clothes and paper and paints, and the children spent time preparing and rehearsing. In another neighborhood, several kindergarten children and their parents used scraps of wood to build a playhouse. When the kids finished their project, they not only had a playhouse, but a strong sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.