Back in pre-pandemic times, when kids freely went into their classrooms and parents were invited to come and watch them in action at certain points (show-and-tell days, concerts, volunteer-to-oversee-snack-time), I was forever struck by seeing how much of my son’s time at school was spent just … playing.
Whether with blocks, horsing around on the playground, or overseeing a game of “house” during choice time, a lot of what he seemed to do at school was romp around and create games with his friends.
And there is such value in that play, which is why schools bake it into their daily routines. Not just for little kids, either. As the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) puts it, children of all ages need play to “optimize their development,” “enhance their brain structure” and — perhaps most salient of all these days — help them manage “toxic stress.”
“Play is critical for learning…literally everything,” LaNesha Tabb, a kindergarten teacher and Juicy Juice expert, told HuffPost. ”Young students are learning everything from colors and shapes to the art of negotiation when they play. Not only that, but when young children play, they are given the opportunity to learn important self-regulation strategies. They get to practice losing, winning and taking turns.”
“If playtime is undervalued or cut,” Tabb added, “children are missing out on so many organic learning experiences.”
With all of that in mind — and given that parents are embarking on an unprecedented new school year where so many of us are acting as part-principal, part-classmate — HuffPost Parents spoke to a collection of experts and our community of readers who shared some of their go-to play-time activities. Basically, types of play that are so fun, kids will totally miss out on the powerful learning lesson they’re getting at the same time.
Build something together.
Plenty of research shows how bricks, blocks, and other building toys can really benefit kiddos’ brains, Jenny Nash, LEGO Education’s Head of Education, told HuffPost. She said thinks that kind of play can be particularly powerful during the pandemic, when so many kids are learning remotely for big chunks of time. So they’re consuming a lot of information, but maybe in a more passive way than they’re used to.
“It’s hands-on,” said Nash of building activities. “They have the ability to be the creators and to be builders.”
When kids play with building blocks or bricks (or other materials!) they’re working on creativity, problem-solving and perhaps most important right now, resiliency, Nash said. When something breaks or a creation didn’t go the way they’d hoped, they’re able to work through that frustration in a safe, fun way.
Try old-school board games or card games.
“Card games!” recommended HuffPost Parents reader Jaclyn Edwards. “Thirty-one, Black Jack, Crib. [It] improve[s] their counting and sequencing without [them] even knowing it.”
Research also shows that board games can be beneficial for kids of all ages, helping younger children sharpen their focus and boost their attention span (a biggie for squirmy remote learners), and can help older children learn strategy — even boosting their frontal lobes, some experts say.
“Board games will teach children to win and lose graciously but also, they will gain practice with being strategic,” said Tabb.
One bonus: board and card games are great for parents who aren’t necessarily drawn to long stretches of imaginative play, or who are just too exhausted to make it through another round of make-believe. They’re engaging — and pretty darn easy.
Bake or cook together.
Baking is a great activity for kids of all ages — particularly if you’ve got tweens or teens at home who are weeeeell out of the imaginative play zone. It’s an activity that several HuffPost Parents readers noted was one of their go-tos, and for good reason: it helps hone basic math skills, it requires that they read and/or listen carefully and follow instructions, and it’s an overall confidence booster.
Baking or cooking for others is also a form of altruism, so it’s a really easy, organic way to teach children to care for — and think of — others.
Another option? Encourage your kiddos to cook for themselves. “My 3rd-grade twin daughters have also been making their own breakfast each morning, and they have mastered scrambled eggs and toast,” HuffPost Parents reader Anne Marie Fleming said.
Run around. Jump. Throw a ball.
Parents might not necessarily think of kids running around and blowing off steam as a form of learning, but as experts like Nash point out — physical activity and learning really go hand-in-hand.
“When you’re physically active with what you’re doing, your mind is working overtime because it’s thinking about those physical actions along with whatever information you’re getting,” Nash said.
That’s a big reason why schools have recess, for example. The AAP calls recess “crucial” not just because it helps break up the day, but because it offers a time when children work on their motor skills and practice interpersonal skills.
Even just running around together a bit, or playing a game of catch, can help foster those skills and help kids burn energy so that when it is time to sit down in front of a screen and tune into another Zoom class, they’re really ready.
Do something totally new … for both of you.
One way to really boost learning for your child — and to make sure that you as a parent are truly engaged in whatever you’re doing together — is to play at something new for them and for you. That can involve learning a new game together (be it a video game or an old-school board game), trying out a new sport, a craft or science experiment, or maybe even just getting a new toy that requires a bit of putting together that you have to kind of muddle through together.
“I always encourage parents to learn with the child, get right in there and try it, too,” said Nash. “Your child will learn how to be a learner from you.”