By Blakely Bundy and Diane E. Levin
It’s snowing – again! Jacob, 4, and Caitlyn, 6, are fighting and Mom, after a tiring day at work, has to make dinner. With a sigh, she suggests they play video games on her iPad and iPhone if they will be quiet. Soon the house is quiet – except for the sounds coming from the devices.
“I’m bored,” announces Maddie, 6, even though she has a room full of toys to play with. Mom wonders why Maddie doesn’t play with dolls, dress-up clothes and blocks the way she remembers doing as a child. Instead, Maddie usually prefers to play a game on the family computer or watch videos.
Families have been spending a lot of time at home together these past few weeks. It can be hard to figure out what to do and, in these times, it is very easy for children and parents alike to spend more and more time connected to screens and not a lot of time connected to each other.
Given what we know about the importance of play as a foundation for success in later academic learning and the changing nature of how children spend their time at home, how can we help families reclaim play as a vital part of family life? Without putting more pressure on families, what can we do to help parents take a more active role in engaging their young children – even their whole family – in meaningful, creative play activities?
Our organization, Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children’s Entertainment (TRUCE), set out to try to answer these questions. TRUCE is a national grassroots organization of early childhood educators who are deeply concerned about how children’s entertainment and toys are affecting the play and behavior of young children. Founded 20 years ago, TRUCE has provided easily available resources that help parents and teachers of young children deal effectively with the media and technology in young children’s lives and understand how to select appropriate toys and promote quality play activities at home and at school.
TRUCE Winter Family Play Plans
Given its mission, TRUCE began asking what resources could help parents promote family play at home. Realizing that families need not only encouragement but also user-friendly ideas, TRUCE created its Family Play Plans. These plans use common, inexpensive (or free) materials. They are designed to be inclusive of most families. They are low-cost and can be enjoyed by adults and children of different ages playing together. They include:
The Snow Family Play Plan – includes ideas for snow art, such as filling spray bottles with water, adding a few drops of food coloring and “painting” snowmen or other snow structures; snow games, such as drawing targets in the snow and having a family snowball-throwing contest; and snow science, including bringing snow inside, placing it in containers in different locations around the home and observing how long it takes to melt.
The Socks Family Play Plan – suggests ideas for sock art, such as creating sock puppets; sock games, like making beanbags out of socks filled with rice or beans; and sock skating in which family members put on socks and “skate” on a smooth floor.
The Forts Family Play Plan – proposes ideas for creating forts or hideouts with blankets and sheets, draped over furniture like sofas, tables, cushions and chairs.
Each Family Play Plan suggests ideas for open-ended activities that can be expanded and grow based on what family members get interested in. There is no one right way to play!
To help parents learn more about how to connect meaningfully with their children as they play, every Family Play Plan also contains suggestions for parents observing their children as they play and for asking children simple questions, such as “How can we build a roof over your fort?” or “How can we make that pile of snow taller?”
To help parents appreciate the value of their family play, each Family Play Plan also includes a quote from a child development expert in a section entitled “What Do the Experts Say?” For example, in the Socks Play Plan, the quote is from Ellen Booth Church, who wrote in Scholastic about the value of sorting socks or laundry by color:
“The seemingly simple process of sorting by color and shape is the foundation for living in a mathematical world. Sorting by color and shape prepares your child for the future application of these skills in making graphs or searching for a book at the library. It’s a perfect example of how children (and adults!) use color as a means for defining and organizing the world.”
Each Play Plan also provides a TRUCE Family Play Tip, suggesting that families develop a family “screen turn-off” ritual to do before they begin their Family Play Plan play. This can help families become more aware of how their use of screens can interfere with quality family play time.
The two-page Winter Family Play Plans are available on the TRUCE website: truceteachers.org in both color and black-and-white versions. They are free and can be downloaded, reprinted and shared.
Once the snow melts, make sure you take a look at TRUCE’s Spring Family Play Plans on the website. Summer and Fall Play Plans are also there – to keep your family playing all year long!
Blakely Bundy, M.Ed., is executive director emeritus and senior adviser for the Alliance for Early Childhood and a member of the Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children’s Entertainment (TRUCE) Steering Committee. Diane E. Levin, Ph.D., the founder of TRUCE, is a professor of early childhood education at Wheelock College.