Child: “I’m bored! Can I watch something?”

Mum: “No, you’ve seen enough tv.”

Child: “Muuuuuuum, there’s nothing to doooooo…”

Mum: (suggests one thousand different ideas that are not the tv or an electronic device and then says) “Well… you’ll think of something.”

What usually follows is almost always a sigh (or some yelling) of frustration BUT about five minutes after that, THEY’RE PLAYING. YES.

I grew up, let’s say, a couple of decades ago now. I remember riding my bike after school, until the sun starting sinking in the sky, then I’d make my way home. I played outside, A LOT, and while I also participated in gymnastics and dance classes, Saturday morning tennis or swimming lessons I remember having lots of adventures on that bike and in my backyard and the bushland surrounding it.

We live in a changed world nowadays, and if my kids disappeared for hours in the afternoon, I would be hitting the panic button! I mean, they’re still ‘little’ (single figures)…

Parents today could be accused of over-thinking things when it comes to our children and their experiences of the world. This is almost always well-intended – we want our children safe – but at some point we need to find ways to relax the schedules and expectations. This does two things: it gives us a break (we don’t need to be responsible for our kids’ lives 24/7) and it provides our children with some free time to self-direct (and that involves getting creative, getting dirty, assessing risk, taking chances, pretending/imagining, discovering).

Whether inside or outside, the importance of play for children of all ages and the role it has in aiding physical and mental development cannot be underestimated. We’ve all been there, a day at the beach or afternoon in the park when the kids just run around and it’s simple, clean, fun? We are refreshed – kids need that too.

Kids play to learn. Our modern day structured extra-curricular activities can be wonderful for building skills BUT our kids also need some breathing space and time to figure things out on their own rather than being taught (or told) how to do everything.

If your kids are out of practice, here are some ways to encourage free/imaginative play, and then to let it happen…

  • Provide stimulus activities – books, craft activities, rotate toys (put some things away, less is more!), music, recycled goods, take a walk, sensory experience (bubbles, make mud or slime… outside)
  • Have open ended toys – lego/duplo that can be rebuilt (great investment IMO!), puzzles, role-play items. Toys that make sound/light/movement can entertain but the child becomes a passive participant.
  • Follow your child’s lead – what are they expressing an interest in?
  • Don’t interrupt – if your child is already engaged in an activity, let them be! This is important even for very young infants, who don’t need to be ‘entertained’ nearly as much as we assume. They are ‘playing’ and learning too, from day 1! The art of concentration is mastered when we can choose our own activities and are allowed to absorb ourselves in them.

I think in the fast-paced, immediacy of our drive-thru society where everything has to be perfect-or-else, we can often forget our children need time. Time to choose, time to make mistakes, and time to try something else.

Let’s not wish them too old too quickly either. Next time you see children playing a ‘silly’ game or ‘wasting time’, think about what an important job they’re doing – figuring out the world on their terms, in their time (that two hours before you call them in for dinner) and that in those precious moments they learn not just about how things work but they realize they are capable and confident learners, who will one day be adults ready to face the world because they were able to discover it – bit by bit – themselves.

You may also like to read:

Imagination Matters

Connect with your kids with nature bonding activity

8 Minutes a Day – Quality Time 

Angels and Demons- shape shifting behaviour in our kids 

5 things to let go of in parenting that will save your sanity 

You’re doing a great job