The Art and Practice of Play

Posted | by Stephanie Rafanelli | Posted in Ideas that Challenge

4 year-old: So, what do you want to do?
10 year-old: I don’t know.
4 year-old: Well, you could be my dog.
10 year-old: Ok.
4 year-old: But this time, you have to behave.

If you live with a preschooler, play is probably the default activity in your home. Make believe, construction, water play and more are staples in our house, even for our thirteen and ten year-olds. Variations of the conversation above, one I overheard a few months ago, occur on a daily basis and the infectious enthusiasm of our youngest is nearly impossible to resist.

Assorted scholars define play differently. I am comfortable with this simple definition of play: play is any freely chosen and self-directed activity. Soccer practice, while hopefully fun, is not play. A neighborhood whiffle ball tournament with group-decided bases and imaginary all-star players is play.

While we live in an era in which play and free time have been marginalized, I am thrilled to see the increasing attention paid to the vital importance of play. Decades of research1 combined with new studies have confirmed the critical role of play in developing self-control, executive function skills, socio-emotional learning, problem solving, coordination, language processing . . . I could go on. Practicing the art of play is essential to becoming a highly functional human and a positive member of any community.

As a middle school educator, I find myself in conversations with parents who are convinced of the value of play, but are unsure what play might look like for a middle school student. As long as the activity is freely chosen and self-directed, it can be play. Here are a few ideas to help you foster your child’s practice of play:

  1. Schedule time for nothing. Put it on the family calendar. Try to schedule these times as often as possible.
  2. Model play. Read in front of your kids. Invent new recipes to test out. Daydream. Dance (full disclosure – this embarrasses my older two to no end). Write a story. Play word games. Take a walk without a destination.
  3. Have as many resources around as possible. Visit the library regularly to have a trove of good books lying about. Visit recycling areas to have affordable access to cardboard and building materials. Look for art store sales to stock up on any fun materials. Have a few big tubs or buckets. Keep discarded paper and a few old newspapers and magazines for building, folding, weaving, cutting, collaging, painting, etc.
  4. Be comfortable with “I’m bored.” This statement is wielded very effectively by some kids in search of defined structure, a quick treat, or what seems to be the common default – extra electronic media time. Acknowledge your child’s statement and ask if they would like you to make some suggestions or if they want to come up with ideas on their own.
  5. If they want some more specific suggestions, here are a few:
    • Create a script and make a movie, a commercial, a dance routine, a video letter to your future self, etc.
    • Be the chef tomorrow. Plan a menu, decide what ingredients need to be purchased, think about portions and a budget, decide if a sous chef is needed. If possible, figure out a way to get to a store on your own.
    • Invent an instrument and try to play a recognizable tune. Design a submarine that floats exactly in the center of a tub of water. Find some slime recipes (there are many), make a few, and compare. Try to combine two different objects and create a new item (further – create an advertising poster to sell the new invention).
    • Copy some old comic strips or cartoons and rewrite your own captions. Add new figures or erase parts of the original. Become a humor researcher – check some comic books out from the library and decide what parts are funny.
    • Play soccer with a tennis ball. Try to juggle it (soccer-style), catch it on the nape of your neck, control it accurately with your foot, and shoot at a mini target.
    • Draw, cartoon, paint, sculpt, create poetry, write. Compose a musical piece or craft a song or rap. Build, sand, and paint some wood.
  6. Pay attention. Catch your child being engaged in or excited about something. Then do what you can to create the time and tools for those explorations to continue. Without guidance.

With a little practice, we can all fall back into the magical – and essential – habit of playing.


1To read some of the research, I recommend the work of Marian Diamond, Alison Gopnik, Jaak Panksepp, Jane Myck-Wayne, Elena Bodrova with Deborah J. Leong, and Laura Schulz with Elizabeth Bonawitz. To read a good survey of the research on play, I recommend the aptly titled Play, by Dr. Stuart Brown.

Stephanie Rafanelli is both a school coach and a parent education facilitator for Challenge Success. Stephanie has been a middle school science and math teacher for nineteen years. In addition to almost two decades in the classroom, she has served as department chair, both academic and also grade level Dean, a parent and faculty educator, and a leader of curriculum reform. She has founded and run several summer and afterschool programs such as Sally Ride Science Camp for Girls and Menlo Summer Explorations. Stephanie is an educational consultant for multiple organizations. When she is not thinking about education, Stephanie is usually creating chaos with her three children.