Bringing the Lessons Home

Play is a central component in children's mental growth. Play helps children make meaning in their world, it helps them learn about themselves, and equally crucially, it helps them to learn how to get along with others. Yet it can be difficult to resist the trends of our achievement-oriented society when we're faced with the choice of allowing our children more downtime or signing them up for the latest class, sport, or activity. The following tips can help you make play a central part of your children's -- and your own -- life.

Become an advocate for play. If we know play to be important, we need to let our actions speak loud. Let us transform preschool rooms back into indoor playgrounds that encourage and promote learning in a playful way. Let us open up our homes to play and let us schedule activities around play rather than squeeze play around our activities. Let us also acknowledge that children need us to help them get going in their play, by providing stimulating environments and by entering in and injecting important knowledge from the wider world. By doing so, we will be sending the message that play is the answer to how we build happy, healthy, and intelligent children. Einstein knew that, and -- with your help -- so will the parents in your neighborhood.

Provide the resources for stimulating play. Simply having objects to play with appears to be an important component of later intellectual development. Why? Toys and play materials provide the stimulus for children's exploration. When these things are interesting to children, children learn more from them. Toys and play materials are also centerpieces for interaction. When toys are interesting to them, you are more likely to see children coming together and united in a common activity. What do we all do when we are playing together, rather than alone? We talk more, create more, and engage more. These are the foundations for learning.

But there are several caveats. The first is that almost anything can be a toy. You don't have to purchase a fancy toy to reap the benefits for learning and social interaction. Consider some of the low-cost alternatives for a change: Use blankets and chairs to make forts and tents. Our children loved this kind of play, perhaps because it made them feel safe and gave them a private space that they were in charge of (for a change!). Plastic forks make great items to use to build with, and ordinary, inexpensive white paper plates and a little string are great for making things like masks. How about using your plastic containers and different amounts of raw rice, beans, and split peas to make instruments? You can experiment with whether they sound different depending on what they're filled with and how much they are filled.

The movie Toy Story was fascinating for children because it made their toys come alive. Stuffed animals can be characters in elaborate fantasy scenarios that you and your child concoct together. These can be at the playground, in school, in a car -- all sorts of scripts can be played out. Seashells collected on trips make great toys, as do old tennis balls and old uniforms (try Goodwill stores), various inexpensive school supplies (those colored paper clips are great fun), used paper (ever make airplanes? or hats?), and, for the older set, coins. Sorting coins can be great fun. The trick is to look around your environment from your child's perspective. Whatever it is that you are always warning your children away from is what fascinates them. Can you figure out a way to adapt it to make it safe so they can play with it, or can you find something like it?

Laura Berk, in her excellent book Awakening Children's Minds, provides parents and caregivers with three useful questions to ask themselves before buying that next toy: "What activities will this toy inspire? What values will the activities teach? What social rules will my children learn to follow?"

Too often we buy what our children ask for and don't stop to think about whether it will be good for them to have that toy.Yet we are in control, just as we control whether the television is on or not. And we don't have to shell out money for every educational toy that comes along or that toy the children see advertised on television. We're not bad parents if our children are occasionally unhappy.

Join in the fun. Jane Brody, popular columnist for the New York Times, writes, "Toys are best seen as tools of play . . . Toys should be used as an adjunct to interactions between parent and caretaker, not as a substitute for an adult's participation in the child's play."

Joining children in play is perhaps the hardest challenge we have to meet. We are up for a board game or two, but we are not as good at joining in their world. We get bored easily ourselves. If we don't really believe that what they are doing is important, we have a tendency to either control the scene or to opt out of their play. Yet, whenever possible, join in rather than thinking, "Oh, good, she's playing alone. I can now make that call I need to make." Part of joining in requires that you give yourself permission to be a kid again and to see the world from that point of view. Do you remember when jumping in puddles was glorious and when you used to take apart Oreo cookies to lick the icing out of the middle? Do it again. You'll find it rewarding.

Let your child take the lead. Child-directed games will pique interest and learning. When we make play into work by controlling or limiting it, our children lose interest, and we lose opportunities to bond and to imagine with them. We need to strive to find the delicate balance between providing props for play and directing play in our homes and in our classrooms. If we are going to present our children with an art project, we need to make it one where the children determine how the end product looks. We might find that they are capable -- when they are the leaders -- of going well beyond what we thought was possible. A good thing to remember is that it's the process that counts, not the product.

Try to be a sensitive play partner -- reading your children's signals about how much involvement they want from you. Parents who are good at being play partners don't tell children what to do or constantly ask questions or hint to children about the way to play the game.

Encourage your child to use his imagination. One way to get your child's imagination flowing is to set up a pretend play sequence and then let him take it from there. For example, act out a visit to grandma's house with your child, taking his lead. Perhaps you can get him started by using chairs to represent the seats in the car and encouraging him to drive you. You can pass all sorts of interesting things as you go and even worry about the weather because it's snowing. And you can have the snowflakes look like little stars, cows, bowls -- whatever you like. A trip to the swimming pool is another good one -- best done in the dead of winter! Swimming on the carpet, you can spot all sorts of fish and plants and coins and other children and family members.

One game we always used to play in our (Kathy's) house was "Imagination Is." We would sit together on a bed, cover our eyes, and say, "Imagination is when you're lying in bed, you close your eyes and open them. You're somewhere else instead." The children would take us to many fanciful places as we landed at the zoo, in a jungle, on the moon, or flying in the sky. Sometimes we were giants, and sometimes we were ants looking at the world as if we were in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. We would have an adventure at each stop and when we wanted to journey on, it was as easy as announcing, "Imagination is . . ." We would all cover our eyes and set out for new, child-directed sites. Pretend play is fun not only for the children, but also for the adults.

Evaluate your child's structured activities. Obviously, there's no need for you to abandon all of the structured activities your children participate in. But when you make choices for your children, select what looks like the most fun. Visit some of the classes or activities and see what the children are doing. Is the place one in which children can take a lead and show their creativity? Is it child-centered? Are they engaged in pretend and social play? Is there a happy feeling, and are children free to make a mess? Structure in activities is a good thing, but too much control is not. Also ask yourself what the purpose of the activity is. It should primarily be for fun and only secondarily for learning. The more we question our own motives and our own choices, the more we can close the gap between what we know is good for children and what we are actually doing with their time.

Reprinted from: Einstein Never Used Flash Cards: How Our Children Really Learn -- And Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, Ph.D., with Diane Eyer, Ph.D. © 2003 by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, Ph.D. (September 2004; $13.95US/$19.95CAN; 1-59486-068-8) Permission granted by Rodale, Inc., Emmaus, PA 18098. Available wherever books are sold or directly from the publisher by calling (800) 848-4735 or visit their website at

Author's Bio: 

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., is a member of the psychology department at Temple University, where she directs the Infant Language Laboratory and participated in one of the nation's largest studies of the effects of child care. The mother of three sons, she also composes and performs children's music.

Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, Ph.D., is the H. Rodney Sharp Professor in the School of Education at the University of Delaware, where she holds a joint appointment with the departments of linguistics and psychology and directs the Infant Language Project. She has also been a recipient of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship and is the mother of a son and a daughter.

Together, the authors were featured on the PBS Human Language series and are the authors of How Babies Talk.

Diane Eyer, Ph.D., is a member of the psychology department at Temple University and author of Motherguilt and Mother-Infant Bonding.

For more information, please visit