The possibilities of open-ended play

We all celebrate the end of the year differently, but it usually involves a break and quality family time. DR JANE WEBB-WILLIAMS shares practical tips for children to get the best out of play over this summer break. Jane also takes us through the value of play, how ‘must have gifts’  (that fill retails shelves) aren’t necessarily what children find the most entertaining, and shares activities that don’t come at a cost and involve the whole family.

Christmas is a wonderful time of the year when many families get to relax, slow down and spend time together. A time when all ages connect, enjoy each other’s company and play together. The value of play for children’s learning and development is undisputed but in the run up to Christmas too often the focus is on the search for the ‘best toy’, the ‘hottest’, the ‘coolest’ –  the ‘must have’ gift.

Gift-giving is part of the Christmas tradition and something that children around the globe eagerly anticipate. However, it can be a source of stress for parents as they search for the ‘perfect’ gift/s for their children—bombarded by messages across social media that they need to spurge on costly toys. Parents spend significant amounts of money on Christmas gifts for their children, many saving all year so they can purchase special toys for their little ones. Is it worth it? What presents should families be buying? How can parents and families encourage play without breaking the bank at Christmas?

Expensive toys are not necessarily better toys

Recently, I was asked by a family friend to recommend an educational toy that they could purchase as a Christmas present for their 3 year-old-son. They had been searching online for the best toy to promote his development. Overwhelmed by the array of toys and wanting to do the best for their son, they were considering spending well over 150 dollars.

Thinking I would provide a list of commercial toys, my friend was surprised when my suggestions included inexpensive items or toys that didn’t need to be bought. Not a commercial toy or anything labelled ‘educational’ insight. Toys marketed as ‘educational’ aren’t bad, but children don’t need them. Parents may think that by not getting the ‘must have’ present or the ‘coolest’ present, they are not providing for their children but this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Focus on providing items that encourage creativity and imagination

Families can’t go wrong if they focus on providing children with simple ‘open ended’ materials. Materials such as cardboard boxes, wooden blocks, paints, play doh, clay, water, sand—basically any items/toys which can be played with in many different ways. Have you ever observed a child opening a present only to discard the toy in favour of playing with the cardboard box packaging? The reason for this is because some toys have a single use whereas the packaging has unlimited possibilities for play. In pretend play children use their imagination and creativity so that the cardboard box can become a rocket ship or car or a house—it can be anything the child wants it to be! The possibilities are endless and only limited by the child’s imagination.

In addition, this type of play promotes symbolic functioning – the cognitive ability to mentally represent objects when they are not in sight. The child uses objects or actions to represent other objects or actions.  For example, the cardboard box is substituted for the car, a stick becomes a wand or a banana becomes a phone. Development of symbolic play is vital in early childhood and is linked to many skills including language development.

Don’t get caught up in buying a lot of toys—fewer is better.

It is easy to see how parents can be perplexed about toys and bewildered by the choice—if you type ‘educational toys for 3-year-olds’ into google you get 18,800 results! Parents therefore may feel that have to purchase a number of gifts for their children. However recent research in the journal Infant Behaviour and Development found that children with fewer toys were more creative and focused. They found that toddlers engaged in longer periods of play with a single toy, allowing better focus to explore and play more creatively. The authors conclude that fewer toys ‘support children’s development and promote healthy play’.

Playing with your children is what counts

The most important thing families can do is spend time playing with their children. Depending on the age of your children there are a range of games you can play such as ‘peek-a-boo’, ‘hide and seek’, ‘piggy-in-the-middle or ‘pass the parcel’. Again the message is simple and traditional is the best. Research has shown that play with ‘electronic toys is associated with decreased quantity and quality of language input compared with play with books or traditional toys’.

This means that families might want to consider which toys they are providing for their children and the social interactions they afford. Mildred Parten first forwarded evidence with regard social play back in 1932. From learning by observing play as an ‘onlooker’, to playing alone (solitary play) or playing alongside another (parallel play), to associate play where children share materials to co-operative play, Parten showed us the vital role of social interactions in children’s play.  87 years later social play is still highly valued and many would argue that it is more important than ever in the world we live with technology disrupting and disconnecting society. That said adults need to be sensitive in their interactions in children’s play. Making sure the child remains in control and adults do not take over. Families could join in children’s play by being a co-player or playing alongside in parallel with the child.

Christmas is a perfect time to remind us of the value of play and the importance of spending time with our children—play should be enjoyed all year round not just at Christmas.

ECA Recommends

Perspectives on play
By Avril Brock, Pam Jarvis and Yinka Olusoga

This text offers innovative, multi-disciplinary perspectives on the subject of play in a range of environments: the classroom, playground, home, and local community. Chapters include observation notes, case studies and comprehensive illustrations of ideas in action, as well as encouragement for the reader to stop and reflect on their own practice with questions for consideration. You can purchase your copy on the ECA Shop.

Jane Webb-Williams

Dr Jane Webb-Williams gained her PhD in & Education & Psychology from Cambridge University, UK. Dr Webb-Williams is a leading childhood expert, highly experienced social researcher and an Academic at the University of South Australia. Jane’s career in education spans over 25 years in a variety of roles including Program Director, Deputy School Principal and Early Years Teacher. Dr Webb-Williams is a passionate advocate for play within schools and communities to benefit children’s social and emotional wellbeing. She is well known for her advocacy and expertise in play. She serves on the National Board of Play Australia and is a member of the reference group writing the National Statement for Play for Australia.

One thought on “The possibilities of open-ended play”

    karan says:

    nice information thanks for it.

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