real play"-- the kind children enjoyed 100 years ago-- the kind that adults remember with fondness-- and that is more and more rare these days. I tried to pin down some of its defining characteristics in my post here.
Since that time I've been tossing around in my head thoughts from experience and observation concerning things that parents (myself included) sometimes do to unintentionally inhibit real play.
This is what I have so far:
1. Try to keep children from ever getting dirty. So...ahem...I could be accused of going a little overboard with this one. My kids are constantly getting dirty, and lot of times I regret it. But I do think there is some real value in making room for the mess.
You only have to take a look at the multitude of "sensory bins" and play dough recipes that are all over the internet these days to realize that kids have a real need for sensory experiences. Mud and dirt are the ultimate sensory materials.
2. Go along with our culture's message to little kids that they should try to be "cool" instead of feeling free to enjoy childish play (skate boards and sunglasses, makeup and dating vs baby dolls and toy dump trucks)
3. Fill their day with too many planned activities. Some structure is good, but real play needs good long spaces to ripen. Imaginative play especially requires stretches of time- especially if it is going to be the kind of fiction to which they return again and again.
I think our culture is generally better at recognizing this need in very young children, but in my experience, older kids need it too. Their imaginative fictions get more complex; they start acting out ideas from books or eras of history. My older kids have a group of friends who play variations of "loyalists" and "patriots" whenever they get together. It's a story that has been going on for months, and if my own experience is any indication, they will likely treasure that ongoing story.
(a town I constructed out of magazine cut outs and paper. I played for hours with this town)
5. Allow too much tv time or video game time. I've noticed it as an interesting phenomenon that the more tv my kids watch, the more they seem to be grumpily anxious to watch more. A week long fast from media every once in a while (or even a few days) usually does wonders to re-set my kids.
6. Hover or praise too much. (creates self-conscious, parent-driven play)
7. Laugh at their imagination without gentleness. I have to be careful of this one if there are other adults around. Sometimes the things kids do or say are just so funny from an adult perspective, but kids are very sensitive to the difference between being laughed "with" versus "at." If you don't want a behavior to stop, be careful not to poke fun at it.
8. Give them toys that provide too much entertainment for too little work. At the push of a single button so many baby toys go absolutely crazy with flashing lights, music, voices. A child should have to work at the reward a little bit.
9. Worry too much about injury. My mother always treated risks of permanent injuries very seriously (brain damage, paralysis, etc) but if the only real danger was breaking an arm or scraping a leg then we were free to be adventurous and learn from our own mistakes.
10. Insist that furniture and toys be confined to their original uses. Not only can you come up with some super fun ways to play this way, but it may help develop lateral intelligence.
(an old couch that our parents let us have some fun with before they got rid of it)
12. Treat the eradication of their boredom as the parents' responsibility. In our family, going back several generations now, a child's "I'm bored" would elicit a stern, "Well, then I'll FIND you something to do!" and the result would be hard work! We quickly learned to keep any boredom to ourselves :-) As an adult I am almost never bored, and I think that's at least in part because I learned as a child how to occupy and entertain myself.
13. Don't expect any chores out of them. When children have to work part of the day it makes them treasure their free time more. Also work stimulates children mentally and physically.
I'd love to hear your perspective on the kinds of things that inhibit real play!