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How to Become a Play Researcher

"Play is the only way the highest intelligence of humankind can unfold." Joseph Chilton Pearce

We used to play… a lot. We had elaborate tea parties, built roadways in sandboxes, and raced around on “Big Wheel” bikes. But then we stopped, grew up, got jobs, and play became a distant memory. Until we had children. For some parents, diving back into play feels just like putting on a comfortable old sweater. But not every parent feels the same level of ease diving into child’s play and for some it can even be a bit daunting to know where to begin.

On today’s blog, we are featuring an expert on play and parenting. Carrie Contey, Ph.D. is an internationally recognized coach, author, speaker and educator. Her work offers a new perspective on human development, parenting and family life. She guides, supports and inspires her clients to live with wide-open and courageous hearts so they can approach family life with skill and spaciousness and she loves to play! In this blog, she discusses the importance of becoming a “play researcher" to learn how your child plays and how you can best support them and follow their lead.

Carrie Contey on the Importance of Play

 Children play because they have to. We humans arrive with a biological blueprint that is pre-programmed to drive the exploration of our external and internal environments through interaction. That interaction is play. Play is what allows the neurons in our brains to connect and gives us the ability to make sense of ourselves and our world. Play is essential to development, expression, creativity, learning, relationships, empathy, emotional intelligence, and everything that makes us so wonderfully human. Kids play because they are inherently driven to align with their joy. Feeling joy is fun. It's fun because it feels good. It feels good because it's essential to who we are, deep down to the very core of our being-ness. I am going to encourage you to be a Play Researcher. Your main assignment is to study the play habits of your children. As you watch your children play, be curious. Be open. Be spacious. Be aware. Be courageous. Be enlivened. Be delighted. Be exasperated. Be amazed!

Become a Play Researcher

Give yourself a little break from the role of "parent" and amp up your role as "play researcher." Sure, keep life moving. And, try to do it with a spirit of play and curiosity. Observe how your children play. Watch how other children play. Run experiments where you try on different ways of playing. Just be wide open and curious. That's it. Sure, you may decide to jump in and join the fun, why wouldn't you? But really I want you to focus on being in the role of observer, and possibly even student. You have some play masters in your home. Watch and learn.

My intention in having you observe your children at play this week is two-fold:

1) I want to give you permission to step back and just watch. Observe what they do and how they do it without the need to engage with them or make something happen. I think parents feel a lot of pressure to "play with their kids" and rarely is someone actually suggesting you step back and just watch. Please do. I think it's an invaluable opportunity for you and a gift to them.

2) I want you to get a sense of whether it's easy or challenging for you to just let them be. For some it may be really easy, for others, not so much. My guess is that for most everyone it's a combination of both.

Here are a few questions for you to ponder....

  • In observing my child(ren) at play I've noticed?
  • How do they play?
  • What kind of play am I most comfortable with?
  • What play feels uncomfortable to me?
  • How do I know that I feel uncomfortable? In other words, what happens in my body when they are playing, or inviting me to play, in ways that feel uncomfortable?
  • What do I imagine I appreciated (or would have appreciated) from the adults around me as a child with regards to play?

Try This: Engage in a form of play that you often avoid. In other words, push yourself a bit and see what happens. Experiment with going out of your comfort zone with regards to your children and their play. Be open to seeing what it feels like to consciously choose to do something you don't normally choose or typically like to do.

As you reflect on your children’s innate ability to play and answer some of the questions above, hopefully you will now have more insight on your relationship to play and how you can best support your children and your family as you enjoy many years of engaging play.

Create a Family Play Inspiration Jar

After you’ve observed your children in play and tried to stretch your own comfort, you might be ready to dive into even more play opportunities. But as one of my clients whose goals for the year were to be more playful with her son noticed, she had blocks to making this happen. She felt like when she would get home from work in the afternoons she would often find herself tired and at a loss for what to do. So, she created a "Inspiration Family Play Time Box." In it she placed little slips of paper with a bunch of different activities. This way she didn't have to think about what to do, she just needed to pick an activity and do it. I encourage you to make something similar.

Write or type up a bunch of ideas (if your kids are old enough, have them come up with ideas too), cut them into pieces and throw them in a box or basket. If you are at a loss for ideas, I've included 50 ideas below. This list is a combination of the list the sweet mama I mentioned above shared with me and a bunch of my own. I recommend you pull from this list and/or create your own to suit the needs of your family.

  • Dance party! - put music on and dance dance dance
  • Kick a ball outside
  • Roll cars down the hallway
  • Stack blocks into huge tower
  • Sandbox time!
  • Jump on the bed
  • Play board games
  • Play toss with soft objects into laundry basket
  • Snowball fight with cotton balls
  • Make pasta necklaces
  • Collect rocks in backyard
  • Make a sheet tent
  • Animal noise time!
  • Wrap up random objects around the house and open them like presents
  • Play hide and seek
  • Music instrument time
  • Family yoga time
  • Sing ‘Head Shoulders Knees and Toes’ as slow and then as fast as you can
  • Spin around in circles in the backyard
  • Call or Zoom with loved ones
  • Draw pictures of each other
  • Make funny faces in the mirror
  • Paint your toenails
  • Play follow the leader around the house
  • Practice sewing
  • Create a nature scavenger hunt
  • Popsicle stick art
  • Make popsicles
  • Bake cookies
  • Play-dough
  • Plant seeds in cups and place by the window
  • Make a pillow fort in the living room
  • Look for shooting stars
  • Play hide and seek
  • Take a neighborhood walk and play I Spy
  • Tell stories of when everyone was a baby
  • Create a nature collage
  • Experiment with food or have a “Chopped” challenge like on the Cooking Show Drip food coloring on coffee filters
  • Blow bubbles
  • Make an obstacle course
  • "I'm so...mad, sad, frustrated, excited, happy, tired..." pick an emotion and run around playing how you can express it
  • Make up silly words
  • Freaky Friday - pretend you are the kid and the kid is the adult
  • Cook breakfast for dinner
  • Draw together
  • Play the What if… game
  • Jump in puddles when it rains
  • Look for worms with a magnifying glass
  • Look at family photos 

And, one more play tip for days when you are really tired from work or a long day from one of my brilliant clients! “When I don't feel well, I can lay on the couch or floor and entertain the girls for a long time by being their patient. They love playing doctor to my patient and taking care of me. It is interactive, imaginative, connecting play all while I get to lay down and rest. win-win. : )”

Thank you, Carrie! We are so happy to have you on the HABA blog and love your ideas about play! Share your play with us and keep the play ideas coming. To learn more about Carrie and her amazing work, visit her website.


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