Playing is not simply a distraction. It is a crucial part of our lives. Play allows both children and adults to enjoy the present moment, to be creative and learn about ourselves & the world around us.
Imagine yourself deeply in the flow, working on a serious project, and someone suddenly interrupts you, asks you to Stop immediately and do something else. You’d be really frustrated and confused, wouldn’t you? Dr. Maria Montessori said “Play is the work of the child”. Why is playtime treated as if it were less important than our work?
Many of us parents aim for the moments where our kids play independently for long stretches of time. To empower children to play on their own, it is important that we foster their autonomy. It is vital to provide room for growth of independence in making their own choices and respect them. A child needs a prepared environment, a sense of autonomy, a trust that they are safe and secure and the opportunity to freely lead their play and express their imagination. The act of playing, when nurtured properly, becomes an experience of flow for the kids.
While children play to enhance their understanding of the world, toys play a crucial role in how this understanding is formed. Choosing the right toys is within the adult’s power. Family values and principles are an important factor in decision-making. Start by identifying these values as a team. When the time comes to purchase a toy, make sure they do not step on these values.
If we want to teach our children the value of calm, we can make an effort to avoid selecting noisy toys. When attempting to teach them about sustainability, we better opt for toys that are not made of plastic. The same goes for respecting the values of diversity and inclusion. The variety of dolls and topics of the books for example can be an important factor to teach the right message about this value.
Before I discuss toys more in detail, I want to start by noting that nature is THE ultimate environment where children can find the best material to play. Sticks, mud, pebbles and leaves are often part of our favourite childhood memories. Being out there free, feeling and touching the natural world is a sensation that triggers wonder and discovery.
We can even reframe play when it comes to the practical tasks we need to complete at home. Instead of labeling them as chores and associating a negative emotion to them, we frame them as a joyful team work, a respectful responsibility. From a very young age, it is a joy for the kids to copy adults and feel useful around the house. For instance, washing vegetables or sorting the laundry is a simple task for an adult but it is a chance for children to feel that they are included, useful while being playful. All this fosters a much-needed sense of belongingand independence. This is essential for raising responsible and self-sustaining adults. Next time you feel like distracting a child so you can get something done, try to reframe it as an opportunity to play, and invite them to help you!
We may have a fixed concept of play in our mind and an attachment to an outcome we desire which limits us from recognizing when a child is playing. When a toddler spills the water over and over again or a child piles all the cushions on the floor… I invite you to stop and observe, non judgmentally: what is my child discovering? What is the process they are enjoying? And redirect their need to something acceptable to you: water play in the bathtub? building a fort?
So what are the best toys to have? If you need to supplement nature play and practical life activities with some toys, here’s what I’d recommend you get:
1. Board or Card Games: Family time, learning to take turns, learning how to be ok with losing… Many life skills can be taught with board games!
2. Sensory Materials: All you need is a large tray and easy to find sensory material like sand, pebbles, clay, dry pasta or rice. Musical instruments are also a great addition (for free use)
3. Blocks: There’s no simpler tool to empower the imagination. Children can build anything they want and they have very few creative limits. Wooden blocks or any shape are great!
4. Books: A good selection of children's books that can be often revisited are valuable since they can teach different lessons at different ages and let them explore wonderful worlds.
5. Characters or dolls: These simple representations of human and animals allow the child to learn to care for others and to be a nurturer. It also allows to recreate scenes from their life to process their emotions (a visit to the dentist perhaps?)
6. Vehicles: Cars, Trucks and Trains are not just for boys! Enable them to move around in their imaginary world.
7. Gross Motor: A simple mat, a balance beam, a trampoline, a swing or slide. They’ll need to move their bodies each day.
8. A Ball: Who doesn’t love a ball? Endless opportunities here!
9. Fabrics: We don’t all have space for bulky (not to mention expensive) princess costumes that will get outdated. Simple fabrics and scarves can be used in multiple ways to dress up and be free in imaginingcharacters.
10. Art Supplies: Classical basic materials such as paint and brushes provide a richness that fuels creativity!
As we focus on what we need, it’s very important to mention that a crowded play corner with endless toys is not beneficial for the child. Overwhelm can be the main cause a child doesn't want to play. We need to start by decluttering and keep just a few items on display. Here’s what I recommend you get rid of:
- Toys that are broken or have missing parts, or that just annoy you. Loud, flashy? Pass it on.
- Toys that have a single purpose and can’t be used in different ways or that play by themselves, put on a show for passive spectators. If the child can reimagine the toy, it’s not benefiting them.
- Gadgets that advertise other products, gifts from corporate events are just a waste of space and are not worth keeping. Same for toys that get forgotten very easily, passing fads.
- FInally, toys that promote negative behaviors and have no valuable lessons to teach.
If we think of toys as something to distract the child or to bribe or buy their happiness, we can quickly start to gather unneeded items, drown in mess and overwhelm the child. Focus on the main objective: is this a helpful tool for them? Do they need it? Does it sit well with our values? Don’t shy away from sharing with your friends and family your preferred criteria too! Identifying what is needed and maintaining a minimalist approach to the availability of toys can be sustainable for both the children and the environment.
Pascale's journey to Mindful Parenting started when striving to develop her wellbeing while leading a team at Google, working full time, being a parent of 2 and moving countries!
She discovered the power of coaching and mindfulness which led her to become a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach (ICF certified). She received additional training in Relationship Coaching as well as Psychology, Parenting and Wellbeing. She runs group workshops for parents, offers private family consultations as well as individual or couple coaching. She is passionate about making an impact on the human level that will have a ripple effect on their community and generations to come.