Teach Me to Play


March 13, 2013 by greenhouse04

— Last Night —

“I’m pretending it’s winter, and it’s snowing. It’s Christmas. And I’m on a boat in the middle of the frozen ocean. So we can’t move – we’re stuck. And we’ll be here many days until the ice melts.”

I tuck my son in securely beneath his covers. “Then you need to stay warm!”


I kiss his sleepy forehead and wish him Goodnight.

— This Morning —

“Baby chickens!” Emma is in my bathroom exploring the bottom cupboard. She’s found some white cotton balls, and has proclaimed them to be baby chickens. She gently strokes one on its “head,” then collects about 15 more which she carries around the house tenderly for the next half-hour. They are currently residing in a towel nest in the kitchen with two stuffed birds sitting on them.

“Mom, there’s a tornado coming, and we need to hide!” These are the first words from Eddie as he steps foot in the kitchen. “Oh no!” I exclaim, as both kids immediately run and get under the table.

This is what we hear and see all day – exciting – sometimes surprising – scenarios from our children’s’ imaginations.

It wasn’t like this when our first two foster children were here, however.

There were no unexpected tornados approaching our house; no fluffy white baby chicks nesting in the kitchen; no children going to sleep on a ship frozen in the ocean on Christmas. There was a 4-year-old who didn’t seem to know how to play, who needed constant supervision and entertainment.

I had assumed at the time that our 4-year-old foster daughter simply didn’t have an imagination. I hadn’t realized that she’d never been taught to play; that her lack of imagination was due to the fact that she’d always been babysat by the TV and largely ignored by the adults around her. Now in our home, with very little TV and lots of time, she had no idea what to do!

Toward the end of their time with us it finally dawned on me that I could teach them to play! I remember playing in their backyard (yes, this was after they’d gone back to their mom’s) and showing them how to make “soup” out of dirt, grass, and bark, and stirring it with a stick. I was astounded that they’d needed me to show them how to do this. I never remember an adult teaching me how to pretend, but now I realize that someone probably at least gave me a pointer.

Children do have amazing imaginations – I’m learning that with our kids. However, these imaginations only truly flourish under the right circumstances. We can teach our kids to play.

One important way to teach your child to play is to use the TV toward that end instead of as a babysitter. Our first foster kids watched TV mindlessly all day long at their parents’ house; our kids watch a lot of TV, too, but for shorter spurts of time and only shows they are truly interested in watching. What they see then prompts them to play it for themselves.

For instance, for a while Eddie loved to watch educational shows about tornados. He learned a lot and they ignited his imagination. He now pretends something to do with tornados every day.

Using the TV to cultivate your child’s imagination also takes some involvement on your part; don’t just turn it on a leave the room, never interacting with your child about what they saw. Obviously, I don’t sit and become engaged in every program my children watch, but I try to make comments or answer questions to help their minds process what they saw.

Of course, books also cultivate your child’s imagination. Read together often; you’ll soon see your child acting out their favorite story.

A second important circumstance in which a child’s imagination can flourish is time. Don’t fill your child’s time with constant activity. Let them be bored a little and learn to entertain themselves with fascinating pretend-play!

Another vital yet amazingly easy way to teach your child to play is to give pointers. Give them a suggestion about how they can use their imagination in another way.

Their kitchen and plastic food can be used as a restaurant; they can take orders on their play phone and drive the food over on their little car.

After running down the hill a few times, suggest he try rolling down it, then jumping over pine cones down it.

When she brings you her stuffed animals, have the animals start talking to one another. A few hours later you’ll see her making the animals carry on a conversation all by herself.

Show him how he can pick up his metal puzzle pieces with his magnetic Thomas crane and put them in a toy truck, drive them to a pile, then scoop them up with his Toy Story claw and process them in the Tri-County Landfill. He’ll be playing this during quiet time for months!

Make a nest out of a towel for her faceless cotton ball baby chicks, and help her find a mommy and daddy bird for them.

And don’t be surprised if as soon as you suggest one idea, your creative child immediately comes up with his own!

It’s so easy to teach your child to play. It doesn’t take tons of effort or time on your part, just a little imagination. And it’s so fun to feel your slumbering imagination stirring slowly back to life as you enter your child’s world of pretend.



One thought on “Teach Me to Play

  1. Instant Mama says:

    So true, and such good advice!!!

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