Let's play! Ideas to Engage your Children in Creative Play

Let's play! Ideas to Engage your Children in Creative Play

The following are excerpts from the book, My Sandwich is a Spaceship: Creative Thinking Activities for Parents with Young Children.  You can learn more about the book here, or purchase the Sandwich app with a digital download of the book here.

One Saturday morning, my kids and I (Cyndi) pulled up to our local playground, which was populated with children. As my son came out of the car, a little boy with wild hair whom we did not know came running up to him. 

“We have to find the treasure!” he shouted with enthusiasm.

My son did not hesitate. “Where do you think it could be?” he replied with equal zeal.

“This way! You have to come with me! This way!” 

And on went my two children with a whole group of kids chasing after the imaginary treasure. 

I was in a complete state of awe as I watched the story unfold. One child took over as leader and declared himself a head pirate, and he led the other pirates on a path across the desert (the playground), up and down the steps of the imaginary ship, across the wildfire (the monkey bars), and down the slippery mud slope (the slide) to where the actual treasure (which happened to be a pile of wood chips) was located. When the group of children found the treasure, they all celebrated with high fives and shouts of “Hooray!”

The children did not plan. They did not argue. They simply went with each other on the journey of their imaginations.

It doesn’t seem as if we need to ask this question, but let’s ask it anyway, for curiosity’s sake: When we talk about play, what do we mean?

Stuart Brown said, “Play is an ancient, voluntary, inherently pleasurable, apparently purposeless activity or process that is undertaken for its own sake and that strengthens our muscles and our social skills, fertilizes brain activity, tempers and deepens our emotions, takes us out of time, and enables a state of balance and poise.”

Play is a powerhouse. It provides physical, mental, emotional, and social benefits. When it comes to creative thinking, Playfulness allows us to engage in imagination; explore and toy with thoughts, ideas, and possibilities; have a more optimistic perspective; harness intrinsic motivation; make mistakes and bounce back; and engage in problem solving.

One of the more interesting things about play is that it provides these benefits for all people, not just for children. (Yes, parents, we’re talking to you!) Playfulness is a natural state for children. And while it seems as if it’s all fun and games, children are working hard when they play. In play, children make decisions, prioritize, gain and use knowledge, develop strengths and skills, and face and overcome challenges. 

Play can be more challenging for adults. Often as we get older, playing becomes something we indulge in after the work is done…and often the work is never done. As we continue maturing, we tend to focus more on what is real, efficient, necessary, and “important.” That tight focus alone can rob us of the joy found in the small, silly, and precious moments of life. And on those days that are stressful and overwhelming, being with your child can be a beautiful break from the real-world worries and challenges, a time when you can put aside the stresses and, for that moment, make play your sole responsibility and goal. This can be a meaningful gift you give to yourself and your child. You will be amazed at what you learn from your resident play expert!

So much of play is found organically (especially when kids are bored!), and here are some ways you can engage deliberately in play with your child:

Carve out time for free play. Don’t put an agenda or goal to it. Allow your child to lead the play. Allow for more laughter. Sometimes we can forget, in the midst of a hectic day, to laugh a little.  Point out things that you find funny to you in order to increase your child’s awareness of humor. Remember to take every opportunity to smile and laugh with your child.  Enjoy your child’s laugh every time you hear it. Allow yourself the time and space to be spontaneous on occasion.  Think about your attitudes and values around play. How do you view play? Is there anything that stops you from being playful?  Try deliberately playing with your child and reflect on your experience. What did it feel like to play? How did your child respond to your playful attitude?  Look for ways to bring playfulness to other areas of your life.  Be gentle on yourself. Some days it is hard to find the humor in difficult situations.

Make a list with your child of things that you find silly, playful, or humorous. Make a list of fun and silly things to do on a rainy day, or any day. Make a list of the people who make you laugh in your life, and make plans with them regularly. Try all the different ways to laugh: giggle, snicker, belly laugh, laugh like a villain. Ask your child how a monkey would laugh, or a shark, or a robot. Have fun inventing new ways to laugh.  Record the sound of your child’s laugh and play it for him, or make it your ringtone. Take a trip to the dollar store and find some things that could make your child laugh. For example, big clapping hands, a red clown nose, gigantic sunglasses. Engage in hide and seek games. When you are hiding, find a way to use the items you found at the dollar store.  Make a treasure map of your living space. Have your child try to find a “treasure” by searching on the map.  Point out incongruities, puns, things that are funny, and words that sound silly together. Make up silly songs to everyday activities. For example, “Wouldn’t it be groovy to make a blueberry-banana-vanilla-cream smoothie?” Draw smiley faces on paper and put them all over the house at your child’s eye level. Read silly song lyrics and poetry books. Sing silly songs. Make up your own silly songs, raps, and poems. Sing songs deliberately out of tune together. Make up new words to bedtime stories. For example (from Goodnight Moon), “In the great blue room, there was a hippopotamus and a grand cartoon…” Make breakfast/lunch/snack time fun and different, and surprise your child: cut up his sandwich into different shapes, make a fruit or vegetable robot/bug/building/etc., make a waffle house, or make something out of a napkin.  Do something funny to your appearance before you walk into the room: put stickers all over you, wear your hair in a funny way, wear a clown nose. Turn the wall hangings in a room upside down or rearrange the furniture. Dinnertime fun: Eat dinner in a strange place: under the table, in bed, outside, under a blanket tent. Eat dinner with just your hands. Feed each other. Set the table in a different way. Play with balloons: bat them around, blow them up and let them go shooting off, keep the balloon from touching the ground, use static electricity to stick a balloon on a wall. Fill a room with balloons and play with them. Play in the snow together. Build a snow fort. Make snow angels. Make snow aliens. Make your family as snowmen. Play the “What if” game: What if the furniture was made of spaghetti? What if our pet could fly? Play with Play-Doh, a fantastic creativity toy. Make your own Play-Doh together. Tell each other jokes. Teach your child about knock-knock jokes. Explain jokes. Dress in crazy outfits and take a photograph. Slapstick comedy: play with slapstick humor. Watch slapstick movie clips such as The Marx Brothers, The Three Stooges, Flubber, and Charlie Chaplin movies. Get magnets to “jump” together.  Stage a comedy show with all of your stuffed animals. See how long everyone can keep a straight face while doing silly things. Make silly noises. Take turns to make the silliest noise you can think of. Practice laughing meditation. Lie down with your child on the floor touching hands and just laugh together as hard as you can. Start by fake laughing, and that will turn into real laughter. Give your child a bin full of old toys and ask him to create a game with you. Let him take the lead! When having a rough day, find a movie that will make you laugh. We strongly recommend “Parenthood.” If you haven’t seen it since becoming a parent, you are in for a treat (watch it while the your child is napping).

Once a month, create a day of little surprises. For example, chocolate chips in pancakes, a special photograph found underneath the pillow, a trip to a new park, a visit with a special friend. Have a family Laugh Night: tell jokes and funny stories, watch a funny movie, play games without using the directions. Take a silly family photo. Send it out as a greeting card. Put it up on the wall. Go back to your list of silly things to do on a rainy day, and try one out. Make silly hats, and wear them when you want to be silly, crazy, etc. This could also help with keeping the super-crazy-silliness in context. Create a journal of “someday, these will be funny” stories about parenthood. Find funny cartoons, sayings, pictures, or quotes and put them up in your house, car, or workspace.  Make family fun an important part of your life.