There are many studies out there that say today’s kids are all work and no play, despite how essential free play is for children’s growth and well-being. Playing helps children learn self-direction, decision-making skills, self-control, rules, how to manage emotions and how to navigate social situations. Children who don’t play enough tend to lack joy and are sometimes aggressive.
But how do we get them this play? Even when parents agree that their kids need to play more, current lifestyles often prevent it from actually happening.
When we went house hunting in Milwaukee last fall, we felt good about our first choice because we saw toddler-size play sets and slides in back yards around the neighborhood. But I’ve since learned that most of the moms here work outside the home, and except for the afternoons and early evenings, there’s rarely anyone for my kids to play with.
No judgment on those families, who have since become our friends — their kids get to play at day care or in school, and I chose to work from home. But I want something that doesn’t seem to exist anymore: That 1950s style of play where kids had their own world, separate from adults. I’m thinking of the world portrayed in “The Sandlot,” “Now and Then” or “My Girl.” I’m not calling for a return to the kind of detached parenting that predated (and probably caused) the helicopter parent. But I do want that independent style of play back for my children. My older boy is lonely, and so is his mama.
After we had moved into our house, a friend told me about a Meetup group for stay-at-home moms. The group was in such high demand that I was on the waiting list for six months. Once I got in, I paid the annual dues and agreed to terms and conditions, including that we must attend at least one event a month and that we cannot be a no-show to an event we RSVP’d to. We are encouraged to host some of the get-togethers and to help with meals when moms in the group have babies. This group is serious, and I think it’s because there are other stay-at-home or work-at-home moms who want this kind of play for their children, too.
Op-eds rail against our kids’ over-scheduled lives, but they’re not offering us any suggestions on how to create a social group for them. One of the most surprising things I’ve learned about parenting is that making time to play takes hard work.
Does this sound familiar to you?
Here are some ways to get more play time for your kids that I hope helps.
- Join moms’ groups. Or create a stay-at-home or work-at-home dads’ group, as a friend of ours did.
- Adopt the traits of an extrovert. I try to overcome my introversion and introduce myself and exchange numbers with parents at the playground, beach, swim lessons, etc.
- Have more children? I’m half joking, half serious. I think siblings are the best gift you can give a child. Right now, I’m watching my kids, who are 22 months apart, just begin to start to play with each other, and it’s a joy for all of us.
- Create a routine that gets you out there. For the fall, our routine for a 3-year-old and 1-year-old involves weekly swim lessons, field trips, play dates with the moms’ group, afternoon walks to the playground and built-in time after church to run around with peers.
- Develop relationships with neighbors and friends. Have families over for dinner. Set up play dates and wait for trust to build. I want to get to a place with my neighbors where they send their kids over to my house while they make dinner for their families after work.
- Be radical community builders. This summer, my husband and I opened our house for a cookout every two weeks with everyone we knew. We provided the meat and drinks, baby pool, and sandbox. We invited friends to come over without asking them to bring anything (No stress! No expectations! No need to RSVP!), and we always had enough yummy food to eat and plenty of people to talk to and play with.
- Make toys part of your budget. This was another surprise for me — the toys acquired at birthdays and Christmas might not get us through the rest of the year. I don’t want to spoil my children, but I do want to be able to provide age-appropriate toys that will help them learn and grow. Sometimes I add a more challenging puzzle or an indoor trampoline to my online shopping cart, alongside diapers and fruit snacks. You can also scan Craigslist, online resale groups and rummage sales for new-to-you toys.
- Inside the house, rotate toys. Divide them in half, or thirds, and every season, rotate a set in or out and your kids will have fresh toys to play with, without spending money.
- Be okay with devoting square footage to toys. If you really want kids to play with the toys they have, you have to make your peace with having blocks strewn across the living room and an art station in your dining room.
- Ask for memberships to the zoo, trampoline places and children’s museums for birthdays and holidays. One of my challenges is finding places where my kids can do as much running around as possible without much adult direction.
The studies are clear on the importance of play. We have to be willing to put in the planning time, money and effort to get our kids the kind of play that we know is critical to their development and well-being. It takes a lot of work to make it happen. But it’s worth it.
You might also be interested in: