Support Lulls in Play and Wait for the Magic

by Meghan Fitzgerald

Parents and teachers are talking a lot about the importance of play these days (Hurrah!). Even though both groups value play, though, their attitudes about certain aspects of play vary considerably. For example, when they describe learning through play, parents most often include playful, structured activities, while early childhood educators tend to emphasize unstructured play activities. 

I have noticed a similar disparity in their thoughts about how long kids can sustain play. Early childhood educators I know tend to worry time will be too short, asking questions like, “Do they really only get an hour to play?” On the flip side, many parents seem to worry that their children will lose interest in play, will get “bored,” or will “wander off” in a similar timeframe. 

I understand both sides. In certain situations, it pains me to move my girls on from play. In other moments, I feel like the entertainment committee, stressed out by keeping my girls occupied (like a recent trip to a fancy restaurant —spinning plates!).

The difference is not in the children involved, but in our adult expectations, which, in turn, impact the way we adults view and support kids’ play. At the aforementioned fancy dinner, I was asking my girls to play like small adults in an environment that was not designed for kids. While, in our backyard play, I look to them to play like young children, and the environment is designed to support just that.

‘Parent’ is not actually a verb, not a form of work, and it isn’t and shouldn’t be directed toward the goal of sculpting a child into a particular kind of adult.
— Alison Gopnik, The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents & Children

So, the environment really matters. Ideally, kids have access to sensory rich materials, an engaging play scenario, playmates and, perhaps most importantly, both the time and the freedom to play in their own way. When you offer this kind of environment, you are much more likely to see how young children can and do sustain their play. The trick is, their play looks like the play of a young child.


That brings us to the expectations part. How do our expectations impact how we see the actions of children at play? 

In the early years, children’s play can appear uneven, made up of periods of intense activity, lots of switching gears and lulls. The brain of a young child is chock full of neural connections, but those connections are rather disorderly by design, so that a child’s actions are naturally less consistent and focused than an older human’s. The ebb and flow between active play and lulls allows children to explore many interests and, ultimately, helps them to develop their brains and their stamina for play. 

In my observations, many adults value the active moments in play, while they mistake lulls as disengagement or loss of interest. I am guilty of it too. Believe me, it is easier to feel the value of play when kids are humming along in unison, and I still feel a sense of anxiety when the energy of a group starts to scatter. I have had to train myself to hold back, though, because the magic that can follow a lull is well worth the wait.

American parents… (I do not exclude myself) worry too much and provide their children with too little space to grow.
— Paula Fass, The End of American Childhood:A History of Parenting from Life on the Frontier to the Managed Child

If we decide play has become “unproductive,” we often intervene, redirect or move a child on to something else, often something more structured. When we do, though, we rob that child of a lull that, with the right amount of time and space, could have turned into reinvigorated play, or even a brand new play idea. 

Research shows that when adults start to direct play, children lose interest and play tends to wind down. So, if we intervene when we perceive a dip in engagement, we may actually undermine our very efforts to support greater engagement. 

Further, when we consistently undervalue and interrupt pauses in play, even with the best of intentions, we leave kids unfamiliar with lulls and inexperienced with how to get the full benefit from them. As they grow, kids do not develop that “lull muscle,” and later, when they hit a lull, they are reliant on the crutch of adult intervention to cope with it. Rather than being ready to use these quiet moments as natural parts of creative play, kids are more easily stymied and more readily arrive at the dead end of “I’m bored.” 

If you want to try to stretch yourself to help your child experience and learn from lulls, here are 5 simple practices to try:

  • Create your own rich play environments—Set up the backyard or a mini maker space in your house to support play. Want a more specific starting place? Search for a DIY activity idea to try.
  • Seek out open-ended play—Find experiences that offer stimulating, but largely unstructured, activities and that allow kids plenty of time and space to play in their own way.
  • Question your worried voice—Next time you are in a group play experience with your child, pay attention to your inner dialogue. If you notice judgment, ask yourself: Do I worry that my child is disengaged/has lost interest? What if I look at that disengagement as a lull? How, if at all, does that change my perception?
  • Give plenty of space—Many of us start to worry much more about what our kids are doing and not doing when we/they are in a group. Notice if that is true for you. If you are like me, and you feel it too, try to take an extra step back whenever you notice it in order to give your child (and yourself) plenty of space. 
  • Support lulls—See if you notice a lull in play. What does your child do in that moment? Do they seek your involvement? Do they shift to moving around? Do they remain quiet? No matter how they approach it, try to wait it out. Then, wait just a bit longer. You may just see a new idea catch fire.