Play is the right of every child
-United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child

Healthy, varied play in a child’s life is absolutely necessary for the development of empathy, altruism and other social skills including relationship building and understanding social norms.

Why is play being discussed in educational settings?
You may wonder why play has become such a hot topic. The following are some factors that have hindered open-ended play.

  • Hurried lifestyle. Single parent families, two working parent families, after school activities and parents’ desire for their children to be successful are factors that limit time for free play.
  • Marketing educational toys that are not open-ended. The best toys are those that provide opportunities for children to use imagination, problem solving and critical thinking skills. These toys are usually the simplest and allow the child to make the play rather than depending on the toy for the play. See the list on this website of open-ended toys.
  • Increased emphasis on academics. In these days of a competitive workforce and hiring, parents place an emphasis on the “right” high school and college. Formal education is very important to a child’s success, but balance between academics and less stressful free play is critical to a child’s later success.
  • Safety. All play is a risk and parents must be observant of dangers to children at all times. But there are steps that can be taken to make play a safer risk. Download our tipsheet on "Making Play a Safer Risk."
  • Parents don’t want children to be bored.  Boredom can be good for children. They will make their own fun. Children will eventually make their own healthy open-ended play if left to themselves.

What about media?
David Elkind, in his book The Power of Play has the following to say about media. “Educational toys and media (television, videos, computers, etc.) are not bad for children, but should not take the place of free play. Screen time is not recommended for children under the age of 2.  For children over the age of 2, the challenge is to find the balance between screen play and actual play.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents establish ‘screen-free’ zones at home by making sure there are no televisions, computers or video games in children's bedrooms and by turning off the TV during dinner. “Children and teens should engage with entertainment media for no more than one or two hours per day, and that should be high-quality content.
Studies have shown that excessive media use can lead to attention problems, school difficulties, sleep and eating disorders, and obesity.” (Taken from the AAP website)

High quality media for children includes media that is “hot or cool”, an idea put forth by Marshall McLuhan and investigated by David Elkind in The Power of Play. Media can be described on a continuum of hot to cool. Hot media is more intense and requires less participation on the part of the listener/viewer. For instance, a lecture is hotter than a discussion. A photograph is on the hotter end of the spectrum because it has more details and less need for the viewer to fill in the details than a sketch which is on the cooler side since it requires a little more brain involvement to fill in the details. Media presentations that are slower paced, quieter and allow time for the viewer to respond to questions or interact with the on screen presentation are on the cooler side of the media spectrum. There are studies that support the belief that cool media invites more learning for children. “Two to three year old children who routinely watched cool television programs like Sesame Street did better on academic skill measures (e.g. reading  readiness and vocabulary) than did children who routinely wanted entertainment programs.”

What can parents do to encourage play?
Two of the best things parents can do to encourage healthy play in their children are to provide time and appropriate toys for their children as they engage in free play. Free play is play without goals and is internally motivated. It requires time for a child to make decisions about what to do and how to do it. Toys that work best for free play include those that are open-ended.
The following are some helpful hints that can help you ensure the best play time for your child.

  • Choose open ended toys including:
    • percussion instruments
    • markers, crayons, glue sticks, etc.
    • tool sets
    • dolls and action figures
    • small cars and toy vehicles
    • wagons
    • building sets (without a prescribed outcome)
    • computer games that ask children to engage in open-ended and imaginative problem solving 
    • clay
    • action figures
    • blocks and other open-ended building toys
    • blankets and fabric pieces
    • boxes
    • balls, bean bags and hacky sacks
    • dress up clothes
    • pretend food
    • puppets
    • riding toys
  • Choose child care facilities that allow and encourage free play time.
  • Make sure your child has plenty of down time for open-ended play by himself, with other children and with you.
  • BALANCE your child’s life. According to Sigmund Freud and Jean Piaget, both play and work are necessary for healthy adaptation. Effective development depends on balance in a child’s life. Play is a critical part of that balance but children also need structured settings that include rules and allow children to learn by example in a variety of settings.
  • Come to Creative Discovery Museum often and let your child lead you in wonderful open-ended play activities.