If We Could Turn Back Time…and Just Play

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In the last few months, I have been reading up a lot on play and how research is finding how important it is to social emotional development for children.  We have become so focused on teaching our children the ABCs and 123s, that we have ended up decreasing the amount of time they get to just play.  I know that there is lots of time during the school day for kids to “play” but it is often directed by the adults because kids are given a choice to play in one station or another.  There is often an adult guiding their play.  I can’t tell you how many times I have walked into a classroom observation and seen kids on the outside of the group having to be brought in and directed how to “play” by one of the classroom team members.  Play, unfortunately, is something that has taken a backseat these days as we as a society place a greater importance on teaching our kids and making sure they have all the academic skills.  You don’t hear parents bragging about that awesome block castle their kid build all by themselves, do you?  What you hear are things like “My 3 year old already knows how to write all their letters!” or “My 4 year old learned how to read!”  While these are both critical skills for every child to learn, they don’t need to be taught at such a young age.  Leave that to their teachers and begin playing with your kids!

Why is play important?  There are endless reasons, but here are just a few:
*children are given the opportunity to practice both verbal and nonverbal communications skills by negotiating roles and gaining an understanding of other peoples feelings.
*they learn important social skills that they will need for the rest of their lives such as turn taking, sharing materials and waiting for their turn.
*play and physical activity has been linked to helping kids be more creative thinkers and have a better ability to connect with others.  They are better able to negotiate, share and resolve conflicts when given ample opportunity to play independent from their caregivers.
*play helps to improve fine motor skills.  Children who have been given lots of playground play opportunities are given the chance to hone their body strength and coordination skills which leads to improved fine motor skills.  It also helps them to build gross motor skills, improve self-control and modulation skills.
*play has been proven to relieve stress in children, especially as the academic demands begin to increase.  I always tell the parents I work with that what we expect from kids today is abnormal.  We are asking way more from them than is developmentally appropriate.  According to a poll of parents by Let’s Play, 46% of the parents said that the focus on academics was one of their kids’ biggest barriers to play.

The countless articles I have read have gotten me thinking a lot, especially as I watch my daughter grow and mature.  I have always been impressed how she has always been able to interact with her environment.  Not just the people in her environment, but the toys and objects as well.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I am not preaching, judging or trying to tell anyone what is right or wrong when it comes to play and the kinds of activities and toys we expose our children to.  My daughter is an expert when it comes to playing with and exploring an iPad.  Maybe it is a bad thing at times but it has helped motivate her to learn how to write letters, begin learning how to read and kept her from freaking out during some long car and plane rides.  I’m definitely guilty of buying those battery operated toys that she has seen on television (she’s an commercial addict and MUST have everything she sees) because she “has to have them”.  But what I love the most is that as much as she loves those things she sees on tv, she can play for hours with her little Maileg bunnies and mice I’ve been collecting for me…I mean her…since she was born.  She can play in her kitchen and cook for her daddy and me coming up with some of the most delicious meals.  When I would pick her up from school, she would run around with her friends without a care in the world playing tag and other kid games.  I know that even if she is exposed to too much television and screen time on the iPad, she has a vivid imagination, can sit and color and draw for long periods of time and socialize with her peers without me having to step in more than what any parent of a kindergartener expects to.

These articles have also gotten me thinking about my childhood and what I did outside of school.  I am one of four girls, my younger twin sisters being less than 2 years younger than me.  We would come home from school and not have to do homework and were forced to go out and play.  Even in the most awful of weather, we were outside.  My mom would pull the car out of the garage and we would ride our bikes, play games and just play.  In the fall, we were given rakes and made leaf mazes and homes.  In the winter, we were given shovels and made snowmen, threw ourselves in the snow and made snow angels and have snowball fights.  It didn’t matter what season it was, my sisters and I were encouraged to just play and have fun.  In those moments, we learned how to fight, how to resolve our conflicts and how to compromise with each other.  It wasn’t always clean and there were several times that our parents had to intervene, but I know that these opportunities to just play shaped us and our relationship as grownups.

These articles and focus on play has also gotten me to think about the toys we used to play with growing up.  They were so simple yet kept us focused and engaged for such a long time.  Most of them didn’t require batteries, didn’t make a lot of noise and could be shared with a sibling or friend and encourage social interactions, such as turn taking, compromise and being flexible.  These toys encouraged you to be creative and think outside of your comfort zone.

Here are some of the toys from when I was growing up that are still around today. They may have been modernized to some degree, but not too much.  They are still great toys and in my opinion, ones that we should be getting our kids:
Hula Hoop-do you know the Hula Hoop we know today was invented in 1958?  They are great for working on improving trunk control, motor coordination, focus and attention and increasing frustration tolerance.  Hoop Mamas, an Etsy based store, custom makes hula hoops in different sizes and colors!  A great gift for your those kids you know who love to hula hoop!
Sit N’ Spin-the Sit N’ Spin is still as awesome today as it was nearly 40 years ago.  They have upgraded the original one several times since its debut in the early 70s, but I am happy to see that they have a non-singing, non-lightup version available now.  The Sit N’ Spin is great for working on bilateral coordination, modulation/regulation skills, building upper body strength and motor coordination skills.
Colorforms-Colorforms have been around for over 60 years and one of the oldest and best known toy brands.  These vinyl re-stickable playsets started off as basic shapes (you would put the shapes together to make pictures) and has evolved to popular characters from tv shows and movies.  I’m pretty sure I had a Strawberry Shortcake set way back in the day.  I use Colorforms in my therapy sessions and the kids love them.  Every time you play with them, it can be a little different.  They are great for working on fine motor skills such as grasping, visual motor and perceptual skills and improving language skills.
Wacky Wally-recently, my daughter and I were in a toy store and she found this sticky starfish that can “walk” down the wall.  She got the biggest kick out of it and would fall to the floor laughing as it clumsily made its way to the floor.  It totally brought me back to my childhood and how much fun I would have with my sisters and friends having Wacky Wally races.  It was the simplest of toys yet it provided endless entertainment.  I’ve actually used other kinds of sticky toys during my therapy sessions.  Sometimes I have them throw them at targets on the wall or mirrors which they love to do.  This simple and inexpensive toy is great for working on decreasing tactile defensiveness (because of it’s sticky texture), upper body strength and motor coordination skills.
Snoopy Sno-Cone Maker-first introduced in 1979, the Snoopy Sno-Cone Maker was on every kids wish list growing up.  While things have evolved and we have the ability to make much more sophisticated cool treats, there is something about this sno-cone maker that just takes ice, juice and/or flavoring to make them yourself.  Great for working on bilateral coordination, increasing upper body strength, focus/attention and many other OT skills.  Also great to use with a small group of kids to work on improving social skills such as turn-taking, compromise and improving pragmatic language skills.
Connect 4-even though there are several versions out there now, the original game came out in 1974.  The 2 player game was easy to put together and was simple to play.  Choose a color and start putting the pieces into the board.  The first person to get four in a row, is the winner.  Great game for working on focus/attentional skills, improving executive functioning skills, eye-hand coordination, visual motor and perceptual skills.  Also a great game to play in a small social skills group.
Spirograph-this arts and crafts set has been around for over 50 years and kids today are still enjoying it.  Spirograph was originally designed by a mechanical engineer for use as a drafting tool.  The gears and wheels work together to create cool and colorful swirling designs.  There are now several versions to choose from, including a My Little Pony one that I think my daughter would lose her mind over!  For you traditionalists, no need to worry.  The original set is still available.
Great for working on bilateral coordination skills, improves eye-hand coordination, visual motor and visual perceptual skills and focus and attentional skills.  Also great for encouraging kids to be creative and think outside of the box.
Cats Cradle-I remember spending countless hours playing Cats Cradle with my friends and don’t know why I haven’t done this at work with my kids!  Using a long circular string, you can create a series of string figures.  This two-person game is great for working on improving fine motor skills, visual motor and perceptual skills, eye-hand coordination, executive functioning skills and many other occupational therapy skills.  I’m definitely going to get myself the book and re-learn how to play this game and start using it at home with my daughter and at work!
Card Games-a simple pack of cards can go a long way in entertaining kids.  I feel like each family has “their” card game.  My sisters and I used to play the game Spit all the time and my now 7 and 10 year old nieces are following in that tradition.  I’ve used cards to help reinforce number learning with some of the kids I work with.  I love this article by Today’s Parent that has the directions to 10 family friendly card games.   
Jenga-did you know that Jenga was released in other countries before coming to North America in 1986?  I remember playing this game with my friends and family as a kid and as stressful as it was, it always ended up with everyone laughing!  After you stack the 54 blocks into a tower, you take blocks out and place them back on the top of the tower. The game continues until the tower falls.  This game is great for working on fine motor skills, eye-hand coordination, modulation and regulation skills, focus and attentional skills, motor planning and social skills.  I’ve actually taken a Jenga game and written questions on each block so each time the block is pulled, a player has to ask the other players social questions.  This can be a great ice breaker game for any social skills group!

These are just a very small handful of games and toys…..I could have gone on and on and on!  As it is, I have a wish list on Amazon.com a mile long on old toys and games I MUST have.  I would love to hear from you about your favorite toys or games growing up.  For you parents reading this post, is there any toy/game from your childhood that you play with your kids?  What about you therapists? do you have anything form your childhood that you use in your therapy sessions that the kids just can’t get enough of?  I am only a click away and love hearing from you all!

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