It’s Okay to Just Let Them Play

playOver the past few months, I’ve seen so many moms doing adorable educational projects with their children, and I love them for it.  But that just isn’t me, even in the best of times. Add on homeschooling while my husband and I work full time outside of the home with no access to childcare, and we’re lucky if we can even accomplish the bare minimum, let alone Pinterest-worthy activities.

I am so grateful for all of my training as a Play Expert because when I’m overwhelmed or feeling less capable than the moms on Instagram, I just remind myself how very important play is to their physical, emotional, and social development. So, overwhelmed mom, I’m here to remind you, too — play IS learning! When you’re exhausted or fearing your kids are never going to get into Harvard, take a breath, relax, and hand them a toy! 

Here’s a breakdown of just a few of the important skills kids learn through unstructured play. If you’re feeling motivated, I’ve added some ideas on how you can turn up the educational value of their play, too. 

Puppets and Dolls

This morning my daughter spent a solid hour alone playing with dolls in her room. My husband said, “I feel bad, like I should be paying attention to her.” I reminded him that learning to entertain herself is a skill we really need her to have and that he shouldn’t feel bad at all. While she was alone playing with dolls she was also doing important work learning critical social-emotional skills. Dolls allow children to be creative — they can imagine the doll’s personalities and the worlds they live in. Whether talking to the doll or through the doll, children learn to describe their observations and feelings and to work through problems.

Make It More Educational: Play along! No prep needed, pick up a doll or a puppet, and engage your child. Is there an emotion or an issue they’ve been dealing with? Explore how your dolls would handle the situation. For older kids, you could try out acting as historical characters or characters from a favorite book. 

Dress Up

Like dolls, dressing up allows children to explore the world. When children dress up, they can try on different personalities, careers, emotions, and actions. They can practice real-world skills, and feel “big.”  

Make It More Educational: Dive deeper into a character they are interested in. My daughter loves to dress like an astronaut, so we ‘ve spent a lot of time researching and discussing all the different pieces of the astronaut’s suit and how each component keeps them safe. She also loves to dress like Moana, which has opened the door to lessons about how sailboats work and how people use the stars to navigate. When he was younger, my big kid was really into costumes as well. This interest is how he learned to sew, to create elaborate accessories from resin and countless other useful skills.

LEGOs and Building Blocks

Besides giving them the spatial reasoning skills they will need to assemble your Ikea orders when they get older (I’m talking from experience), building teaches kids many important concepts. Each time their project collapses and they have to start over, they build resilience. Blocks also teach basic engineering skills and a variety of math concepts.

Make It More Educational: Just as there are no limits to the things you can build, the educational possibilities of blocks are endless. A favorite activity at our house is to use them for math facts. They can be used for everything from simple counting to complex fractions. LEGO actually has an entire website devoted to lesson plans for preschool through high school. 

Moving BoxesA Cardboard Box

We have a saying at my toy store, “The less a toy does, the more a kid can do with it.” Enter, the most magical of all toys — the cardboard box. The reason kids love boxes so much is that they are limitless, just like their imaginations. Because a box is so simple, it has no boundaries for what it can be. Cardboard boxes are excellent for story-telling, for gross and fine motor skills, and for spatial reasoning. Bonus: If you have a big enough box, you’ve got your kid trapped in one place for a few minutes!  

Make It More Educational: Get more cardboard boxes. 

I’m here to tell you you don’t need elaborate projects or a Pinterest account to be a good mom. You CAN hang out in a hammock drinking a margarita AND prepare them for a successful future at the same time — that is the power of play!

Theresa is a recovering fake adult and is now proudly a child who refuses to grow up. She spent a decade developing and facilitating enrichment programs for at-risk youth. Through this work, she saw firsthand the power of play in the growth of emotionally, physically and mentally healthy children. The pressure of pretending to be an adult finally became too much, so in 2014 she and her father Todd (also NOT a grown-up) opened Villa Villekulla Neighborhood Toy Store on Amelia Island. Her two children, Adrian and Francine, often exhibit more maturity than she does and are, therefore, the ones in charge both at home and at Villa Villekulla. When she isn’t playing with toys, learning about toys, or talking about toys, she enjoys dance parties and listening to live music with her husband.


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