Over the past two decades, children’s play time had evolved into something that didn’t always look like play. After school hours were arranged with a focus on getting ahead and transforming children into impressive adults. There were scheduled activities: dance, soccer, gymnastics or chess club. There were extra academics like special training in math, coding or a second or third language. For enjoyment there were video games, apps and movies. It all might have been fun; it might have been beneficial, but you couldn’t really call it play.
Then came quarantine.
Families were stuck at home, activities got cancelled, schools functioned online, and socialization became limited. There was less on the schedule: less homework, less choice for how to spend your time. And all that “less” yielded so much more.
Suddenly there were more ways to stretch the imagination, more time to investigate nature. More time to daydream. More ways to use an old box or an empty yard. More ways to play.
We have known for quite some time that simple, independent play is an absolutely essential tool to grow children’s imagination, autonomy, resilience and confidence. Free play builds executive function skills, improves problem solving and mathematical skills, fosters creativity, and increases confidence by letting kids conquer risk. We knew this, and yet we still overscheduled our kids. Now that we have lived with the benefits of “less," parents are looking for ways to preserve that kind of play. We are looking for toys that support that kind of play, and the toy industry has noticed.
As Ynon Kreiz, the CEO of Mattel, tells the Wall Street Journal, COVID-19 has reiterated “the importance of physical play, and how much priority parents and children place on quality products.” We want toys that teach our kids real world values: to appreciate nature, to have a healthy body, to collaborate with our peers and to be imaginative. Screen time and childhood obesity both increased dramatically during the pandemic. Toys that reflect the need for physical play and open-ended creativity are the perfect antidote to these trends.
Every parent has experienced the kid who has a toy box full of stuff and still complains of being bored. Of course, when my kids were little they always wanted what they saw on TV - the flashier the better! But once they got it, they were often bored with it a day later. They had more fun playing with the big box it came in! This is because many of those “fancy” toys are designed to be played with one way, unlike simple toys that can be played with in any way the child can dream up.
After years of emphasis on structured activities for kids - the power of play may be returning as the recognized gold standard for learning and growing. The pandemic played a role in this, but I also think the time was right. I think parents want to let their kids play, let them grow up more slowly, let them be in charge of their free time. I experienced this in a potent way myself a decade ago. My kids were so stressed and overscheduled that I decided to thwart conventional thinking and let them take an entire summer “off." They had no camps, classes or structure at all. They were simply free to play every day. I saw them take boredom and turn it into creativity. They spent hours making up games with pillows or old tennis balls or capes and costumes. I saw them discover and nurture their own interests. I saw them delight in their own independence.
Playing freely with their own imagination is a powerful practice for a child. It is the only time they are in control of their world. They make the rules. They can work through emotions, they can test their limits, they can be silly. No wonder simple toys last so long, they have the most possibilities.
The current shift to free play is so gratifying because it is helping us to be better parents. It gives us more time to savor and enjoy our kids growing up. We can trust them to explore and feed their own interests as they play. We can let them dawdle, create and share the wonders of our own backyard together. We can give them a childhood that is truly timeless.
*Pam Lobley started her career as a comedic actress and performed her material in clubs and theaters all over New York City. She has written several plays, and her humor columns have appeared in many newspapers and online. She is the author of "Why can't we just play? What I did when I realized my kids were way too busy" which details the year she let her stressed, overscheduled children take the summer off from their busy activities and “just” play.
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Visit her website at www.pamlobley.com