When my oldest was just a toddler I would obsess over her intellectual learning constantly. So much so that for a while I lost the joy of playing with her and just spending time with her. Due to the fact that I quit my full-time job to stay at home with her, I felt that I must be doing all these activities with her to ensure that she was going to be "smart."
But then something happened. All my intellectual activities for her just blew up in my face. She didn't like them, she refused to do them and soon she was fighting me because essentially I was fighting her. It wasn't until this experience that I thought what I was doing wasn't right for her and it wasn't until I found the Waldorf philosophy, nature play and most importantly the value in play that I was able to start to change my mindset. I had to relearn what childhood was really all about and intentionally move towards that way of thinking. And as a previous elementary school teacher, changing that mindset was not an easy task.
1.) Take a step back from early intellectual learning.
Parents and educators have increasingly become preoccupied with early academics. There is this tremendous push for getting children to read at younger ages and this spills over into other areas of learning as well. Instead of open play kindergartens, we are teaching subjects such as reading, writing, mathematics, science and social studies each day for aged 4-6-year-olds with less free time to play.
The absence of open-ended play also is a problem for the school-aged child, who used to create games with neighborhood friends, adjusting the rules as needed. Instead, from age 5 and even younger, many children join sports teams and are taught to play according to someone else's rules. This is resulting in teens losing interest in the game itself, as their previous experience has been so focused on winning, that by adolescence they are burned out.
Now research is telling us that it doesn't pay off to hurry intellectual and physical development, but also wisdom tells us that by allowing, especially young children under the age of 7, to use the majority of their day for free play inside and out that children gain problem-solving skills, creativity and social development. "Play is to early childhood as gas is to a car," said Roberta Michnick Golinkoff in Einstein Never Used Flash Cards. The book explains that reciting and memorizing will produce "trained seals" rather than creative thinkers." The moment I quit the "planned activities" was the moment we connected on a whole new level.
2.) Allow yourself time and grace to bring back play into your own life.
The evolution first began by learning how to play myself. I started by writing morning pages every day before everyone else woke up, and this helped to liven up my creative side. And this is something I continue to do to this day. I also turned my obsession of reading things like Teach Your Child to Read by Three to Free to Learn, Nature Deficient and The Kingdom of Childhood. Then I started to just play with her every day, all day. Yes, my household work took a major nosedive during this time, but after figuring out that she wanted to help me do housework, I saw the imitation in her play. This is when I changed how our entire days and weeks flowed to following a rhythm as Rudolph Steiner suggests because I saw how much she enjoyed doing the things I needed to do along beside me.
3.) Make nature a daily priority for both yourself and your family.
I started to notice the need of nature being intertwined with all this play we were doing and how we could "kill two birds with one stone" by spending much more time outside no matter the weather conditions. We started with a daily morning walk after breakfast which was both good for her and I. Then I weaved in various times to just play outside, we played at different parks, took hikes and eventually all this nature and play became almost magical in our relationship with one another. She also soon blossomed with this amazing imagination that I can only hope never fades away.
When we just look at the benefits of free outside play, we see it can build a child's confidence, give them a sense of ownership, promote creativity, provide new and different stimulation that nothing else can imitate and it teach responsibility by exposing them to love the Earth and the importance of caring for our environment. In her popular TimberNook program, Angela Hanscom stated that nature is the ultimate sensory experience and that psychological and physical health improves for children when they spend time outside on a regular basis.
4.) Allow for plenty of free time for your children to just play.
Imaginative play is more vital for a child's future than many parents and educators realize. Children need to be allowed free scope in their fantasies since it is through spontaneous creations that they gradually learn how to join the extended game of human society. The more they are allowed to be absorbed in their play, the more fully and effectively they will later take their place in the community as adults. As any parent or teacher is well aware, a child's development does not follow a strictly chronological pattern and can be enhanced by concerned caregivers. In today's world, our children are accustomed to manufactured toys with defined purposes, television and film that present someone else's imagination, computers that use other people's programs and classes in dance or sports in which someone instructs them in what to do. As a result, today's children can no longer bring forth their strong, creative impulse to play. The good news is that a trained teacher or parent willing to learn can help children regain the world of play.
So why is play so important and what happens to children when it is eroded? Studies in Germany, Israel and the United States show basically the same results regarding the importance of play: children who engage in creative play in the early childhood tend to do better in all spheres of life as they grow older. They excel not only academically but also socially, emotionally, and physically. They tend to be more harmonious and less aggressive and they show a better understanding of other people according to Children at Play: Using Waldorf Principles to Foster Childhood Development by Heidi Britz-Crecelius.
5.) Create a simpler lifestyle so that you have more time to create an environment for play and freedom to play with your children.
Today’s busier, faster society is waging an undeclared war on childhood. With too much stuff, too many choices and too little time, children can become anxious, have trouble with friends and school or even be diagnosed with behavioral problems. Kim John Payne in his book Simplicity Parenting explains that children need the space and freedom for their attention to deepen and their individuality to flourish. You can accomplish this by streamlining your home environment by reducing the number of toys, books, and clutter—as well as the lights, sounds and general sensory overload.
The key here is to start small and slow. Take away the activities and stuff that no longer serve a meaningful purpose in your life so that you allow yourself and your family more freedom to just be. In our experience, this has been life-changing for us, and not only do we feel content with what we have and do, we also feel we can say no more to the things that do not provide meaning in our lives.
6.) Establish rhythms and rituals.
Discover ways to ease daily tensions, create battle-free mealtimes and bedtimes and be able to tell if your child is overwhelmed. Make it routine to take a quick morning or evening walk every day, keep your meals simple by having the same type of meal each night of the week, add a ritual such as a family game or movie night to have that time that everyone looks forward to in their week. Keep it simple. The point here is to simplify your life, not complicate it more so that you have more time to play and enjoy one another. Be realistic with your lifestyle and start small. Making too many changes at once never works, make one change at a time.
7.) Scale back on media and parental involvement.
Manage your children’s screen time to limit the endless deluge of information and stimulation. We are in a screen time overload and it can be even overwhelming to adults and although we have heard this one a million times over, it really does make a difference. When I limit or do no screen time, my children get along better, play better and overall just behave better which makes my life so much easier. Do I still use TV sometimes? Of course! I'd be lying if I said I never use it to get a phone call done or a piece written or just have a conversation with my husband, but the point is to be intentional about how much and when you use this tool.
After making these changes in our own life I have found that our children are happier, more creative and have developed emotional intelligence at their developmentally appropriate stages. Now I have made plenty mistakes along the way and still do, but I want to reach out and say that it is simple and possible. Just start with small changes and you will see the benefits almost immediately. Our children's lives go by so fast, so why not allow them to use much of it to develop their own creativity and personality through play.
The 2-minute Action Plan for Parents:
• Spend time at the beginning of each day just writing out your thoughts before you do anything else, you will be amazed at the creativity that will shine through. Even time yourself if you are worried you don't have enough time, instead of checking your phone first thing of the day, journal and see what happens. I can be more patient and productive by doing this one thing each morning. If I miss a day, which happens of course, I notice.
• Reflect on how much time you allow yourself to just play freely with your child. I have even gone as far as blocking out time in my day that is allocated for just playing with my children. I know it doesn't sound very carefree but it has worked for me so that I can freely play with them because I know it's what I scheduled for that time.
Long-term action plan:
Take time to sit down and make goals for your family for the next week, month, 6 months and so on. Are activities the most important or is time at home just as a family and free play more important? Then schedule a break in your plans for the week. Establish intervals of calm and connection in your child’s daily torrent of constant doing. If your children are still at home with you, have days where you are home all day, then on days you're away, set a block of time around breakfast that you're not rushing out the door, give you and your child time. Establish morning and evening routines. Incorporate nature play and free play in your child's daily life. If children are allowed time to just be and play, you will quickly see their desire and need for that play.
Krista currently lives in Hinton, Oklahoma with her husband and their two daughters. She has a degree in Elementary Education and is a certified teacher. Krista first brought up homeschooling to her husband back in 2013 when their first daughter was just a toddler. They've been homeschooling ever since. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.