by Meghan Fitzgerald
Research on play and the science of learning is helping us see that kids benefit from a range of play experiences, including both free, independent play and guided play supported by us adults. Anywhere along the play spectrum, play is child-led, and the actions, discoveries and inventions should feel like a child's own—even when we are involved.
But, how do we pull that off? How do we actively guide play without taking over? How much is enough?!
First, we can breathe. Research is also telling us that we don't have to entertain our children all the time. The quality of the time we spend as play partners matters far more than the quantity. And, kids need loads of independent play time. Phew!
Second, once you know how to get going, guiding play feels really natural. We just need a starting place, and creating simple play projects with your kids is a super way to find your groove with guided play.
Play Projects—An easy way to dive in without drowning!
You can think of a play project as play that revolves around a real-world theme. For example, this summer, we'll transform our Tinkergarten outdoor classrooms into "campsites" as part of a season-long camping play project. Over many play sessions, Leaders will help children and adults work together to add objects, adapt the setting and invent new ways to play in response to our "camping" theme.
This concept of project play is not new. "The Project Approach" is an established way of teaching in which teachers guide students through in-depth studies of real-world topics. Children's museums also offer immersive experiences that invite pretend play around themes like the supermarket, the hospital, or the construction site. There is even a new "family experience" store in Brooklyn that sets up an immersive play experience around a new theme each month.
What do I actually do?
It is easy to set up play projects in your own space. To get started, it might help to think of play projects in two phases: setting up the environment and negotiating the play.
Phase 1: Setting up the project
To establish a play project, start by setting up a play environment. By "environment," I mean both the literal, physical setting along with the objects or materials in that setting and any themes or ideas you put forth. You don't need to create a museum-level immersive play experience. In fact, kids learn much more when you start simple and co-create the experience bit by bit, over time.
Let's take an example. Taking nothing away from the dreamy mud kitchens you've scrolled by on Instagram, it only takes a few things to kick off a cooking play project:
Gather up a few soup pots and a container of water.
Head outdoors (an ideal setting for learning).
Wonder aloud, "What could we cook with what's out here today?"
If kids hear this invitation and run with it, let the play roll and join in alongside, staying thoughtful to follow their lead. If kids lull or shift interest, all is not lost—if the project is "sticky" they'll come back to it.
Phase 2: Negotiating the play
Let's assume the project takes hold. Now, our focus shifts from setting up the environment to collaborating with kids to play and develop the environment over time.
Educators in the Project Approach think of this as "negotiating the curriculum." It might be most helpful for us to think of it as a game of catch. We toss out a new material, idea or question that adds something to the play theme. Then, we wait for children to respond. We let them determine how they want to respond. As we play, we can volley back and forth, always following their lead. This give-and-take approach gives us a supportive way to enrich play but also keeps kids in charge. This back-and-forth also helps us and our kids develop responsive relationships.
What does negotiating the play look like?
Let's go back to our cooking project example. Here are some different ways the back-and-forth could look:
Wonder and make: Talk to kids about what else you could use in your "mud kitchen." Then, work together to use the open-ended objects at your disposal (e.g., nature objects, recyclables, blocks, paper, cloth, tape, twine, etc.) to create new props to add to the environment. Sticks could become spoons. Grass could become spaghetti. Twine and a burdock leaf can fashion you a chef's hat. And on and on from there.
Read: Visit the library and wonder if there are books about cooking to read. Naturally gather ideas as you read.
Shop at home: Go "shopping" in your kitchen to identify a new prop or a spice or two.
Plant an open-ended material: Drop an object like an old sheet or piece of fabric on the ground and see what kids do with it—maybe it becomes some aprons, a table cloth for the feast, or lays around until they invent a need for it.
As the project persists over many days and play sessions, kids will have chances to iterate and invent with as well as without you. When young kids have opportunities to repeat play within the same theme, important neural connections are strengthened and become less likely to fall off as their brain becomes more efficient (i.e., the synaptic pruning process). They also get the chance to innovate or invent new ways to use the objects or ideas.
Give it a go!
Give project play a go this summer. Scroll down if you'd like a step-by-step plan or some sample projects kids tend to really love. No matter how you begin, remember, it should start simple and grow just as you and your kids feel is right. There are no right answers—this is play, after all. It is the process of wondering, inventing, pretending, and wondering some more that drives the learning. Sharing in this process together connects us to our kids and helps kids learn how to create their own play projects, making their independent play forever more rich and engaging.
Step by Step plan for your first project:
Pick a Project: Think about what your child or children find most exciting or interesting. Is it dinosaurs? Unicorns? Art? Cats? Superheroes? If you're not sure that your child has a particular interest yet or at this time, try out one of the favorite themes below.
Set up the environment: Consider what kind of play environment would inspire play that revolves around that theme. Is there a home, ship, or other space in which this play could unfold? How could you mark off a corner of the yard, park or house that could be that space? What first few things do you need to get started. Keep it simple with plenty of room to add and invent.
Add a few props: What ordinary objects could you have lying around that could become props in the play? Could sticks, dirt, mud, etc. help? Could boxes or recycled objects become helpful props with a little imagination, duct tape or string? What about sheets, blankets, etc.? Without pre-making anything, but just having objects ready can help you to wonder with kids about what you'd need to play cooking, unicorns or space.
Wonder: Talk together about what you could wear, build or make. Wonder together about what these characters have, do, and need.
Play: Start to become the characters or people at the center of your project. Wonder together about what these characters have, do and need. So much pretending (and empathy) can come from this. Unicorns have horns, need to eat, have a safe place to sleep and hang out with all kinds of magical creatures—the play possibilities are endless!
Read and get more ideas: Read a book or two about unicorns, and you have gobs of material to bring into your project
Let it roll: Let the project roll on. Keep the project up and running, even if your child's interest ebbs and flows. Then, when it's clear they've moved on, break down the show, and try a new project whenever you feel ready.
Sample play project topics kids love:
Cats or Dogs (or any animal)
Imaginary Creatures (unicorns, fairies, ninjas)
Treasure hunt (maps, buried treasure)
Rivers and waterways
Hooked and want to read more?
Read more about the six qualities of play to get a feel for what makes play play.
Take a minute or two to recall your favorite memories of childhood play—getting back in touch with the feeling you had when you played as a child can help make this concept of child-led feel accessible.
Learn more about how play can help us unlock our parent power.
DIY activities, tips, and weekly resources right in your inbox.