Have a 90%-Child Summer!

Although the weather has never allowed us to warm up to it this year, summer is just a weekend away. Children are yearning for the free feeling of playing outdoors, playing without structure, playing with whatever is at hand. All of this creative, imaginative and energy-intense play is valuable for mind as well as body; how do we help children to delve into summer-time play?

While discussing play and toys with a group of early-childhood colleagues from many different school districts, I heard one esteemed teacher say she talks to parents about encouraging playthings that are 90% child, 10% toy. This seems like an especially wonderful framework for summertime play.

A 90%-child toy has no right or wrong ways to play with it–and it won’t come with instructions. A 90%-child toy has no end-product or desired result. It is a toy that takes on purpose only through the eyes of the child–and that purpose can change from day to day as a child’s game changes.

A 10%-child toy has only one clear way to play. Once a child has mastered what the toy requires, there is nothing to do with the toy but repeat the game. A 10%-child toy speaks for the child, rather than allowing the child to create the action himself. A 10%-child toy allows the child to passively take in the entertainment, rather than be asked to provide the entertainment himself.

Summer-time is the ideal time to find the 90%-child playthings. They can often be found on a casual walk outside: sticks and stones, sandboxes or sand beaches, water puddles or water tables, open spaces in playgrounds or backyards for running and jumping. By keeping the playthings you offer as simple as the entertainment provided by nature, you can encourage all kinds of creative play with a minimal amount of money or investment: balls and blocks, simple toy cars or dolls, blankets for fort-making or picnic lunches, and swings and slides at the playground.

A child most often enjoys outings when families are spending time together and attention is paid to the quality of the interaction. A trip to somewhere fun while mom and dad are distracted by their email is a 10%-child excursion. Your child is most enjoying himself when he knows that you are also interested in the event at hand and in your shared experience of it. A 90%-child afternoon for the young child is a trip to the local pond with a no-phones policy strictly enforced for all in the family.  When he has your full attention, he will want to continue the conversation about the ducks and the mud and trees and all the other things he is noticing.  You will have had the opportunity to gain insight into what he is thinking about, what he is interested in and what he is most excited about that afternoon. He will get to store a childhood memory that involves the very special time you spent together.

Use your summer-time moments to let your child take the lead in play. Don’t worry too much about whether the game or activity you are doing together is turning out the way you would expect it to if two adults were taking it on. Enjoy the joy you see when your child inches ahead into exploring, and encourage the path he is taking. Young children aren’t concerned about the correct way to do things, they are most driven to understand what is in front of them–that often means playing with things in very different ways than we would imagine. You are encouraging play that is 90%-child centered by watching and following more often than leading.

Use the summer as an opportunity to practice 90%-child focused play. Enjoy the simplicity, the act of slowing down and the shared experiences it brings.