Five Essentials to Meaningful Play

By Marcia L. Nell and Walter F. Drew

1. Children make their own decisions.

When children choose how to play for themselves, they experience freedom in making those choices. They also begin to see connections between choice and the consequences or results of that choice. The type of toys or materials parents offer can help their children make more meaningful decisions. Open-ended materials can be used in many ways so children can decide for themselves how to use them. For example, a child can imagine a block to be a fire truck or any number of things. A toy fire truck, on the other hand, is usually used as a fire truck. Foam pieces, little wooden sticks, ribbon scraps, and other reusable resources are all open-ended materials that inspire creative thinking and delight when children use them to make something no one has ever made before.

2. Children are intrinsically motivated.

The impulse to play comes from a natural desire to understand the world. This play impulse is as strong as your child’s desire for food or sleep.1 It is this intrinsic motivation that allows a child to regulate her own feelings and desires in order to keep playing. Because children eventually find it more important to be part of play with their friends than to satisfy their own wants and needs at that moment, children learn self-control. And self-control has been shown to lead to success in later years, especially in today’s information age, where distractions are part of daily life.2

3. Children become immersed in the moment.

In true play, children are so fully engaged that they lose awareness of their surroundings, time, and space. In this risk-free atmosphere where reality is suspended, children have the security and safety they need to experiment, try new ideas, and investigate the laws of nature. Although they are immersed in their play, children still can recognize reality versus fantasy, something parents often wonder about.

4. Play is spontaneous, not scripted.

Often, play is totally unplanned. Other times, play is planned but a child impulsively makes a change. One child changes his mind, or perhaps a toy does not cooperate. This sense of the unknown provides children with opportunities to develop flexibility in their thinking and decision making, which is a vital life skill.

5. Play is enjoyable.

Play always has an emotional response attached to it. Without this emotional connection, the experience is simply an activity; it is not PLAY. Enjoyment is the direct result of engaging in play. It is FUN! These five essential elements of play outline why play provides your child with a rich experience. And isn’t that what we want for our children, to develop play memories that will become the “good old days”?



Make Math Fun!

Children are curious , they pay the most attention to the things they find to be the most interesting.  Why try and force a child to learn numbers with worksheets and books when you can create fun activities to make learning arithmetic fun! Here is a fun way to incorporate math into a game children will enjoy! This activity does include candy but a good alternative to candy could be colorful beads that could be made into a bracelet or necklace instead of being eaten.

Rainbow Sort

What you need:

Small bag of multicolored candy for every group of children/child. 


What you Do:

  1. Prepare the bags of candy by cutting them open and sealing them with a clip to make it easy for the children to dump out.
  2. Separate the children into groups (if with multiple children)
  3. Give the children the bags of candy and paper plates, remind them not to eat the candy because they are scientists who are examining the candy.
  4. Explain what “sorting” means and ask questions about things they sort or have sorted like socks, toys, shells from the beach etc.. 
  5. Have the kids pour of their bags and ask how would be the best way to sort the candy would be and why. (Color is the only visible difference)
  6. Have the kids sort out their candy, encourage them to discuss why they are putting certain pieces into certain places
  7. After the kids have sorted the candy, record the finding on a chart for the child to hang up. 

NOTE: If using this activity with many kids do not let them eat the candy they sorted but instead have a separate bag of candy for the child that is safe and sanitary to eat. 



Learning with the Senses

Sense-ational Fun

How to play

  1. Mix and Match: For this hands-on game, set out pairs of objects, such as crayons, pinecones, rubber balls, and plastic animals, and let your tot practice finding matches by sight. Once she’s mastered that task, dump the pairs into a shallow bag and see if she can locate the sets by feel alone.

  2. Name That Sound: Gather up a cacophony of noisemakers and have your child experiment with blowing, clanging, and banging the instruments. When she’s ready for something a bit trickier, ask her to close her eyes and see if she can recognize the sound of the instrument you’re playing, then switch roles and take a turn guessing while she plays.

  3. Your Nose Knows: Select some materials with a strong scent, such as vanilla extract, ground cinnamon or ginger, orange or lemon peel, even a familiar soap or shampoo, then place samples of each into separate containers. Younger toddlers will simply enjoy smelling the contents and learning their names. Challenge older kids to close their eyes, sniff, and try to identify what’s in each of the containers.


Why is "Play" Important?

Why is “Play” Important?

The act of play is very commonly overlooked as being not important or a waste of time, but self-initiated play is what creates the building blocks for all other kinds of learning, including academic.  A child learns from exploring the world around them and playing with other children.  By doing this they discover how to do things, like make friends or categorize.  They might enjoy doing the same things repetitively because with every repetition they learn something new, even though to adult it might seem pointless.  As adults we must have patience and encouraging of a child’s curious behavior.  There is a reason they are so playful, it’s their way of learning.  There are simple ways of engaging a child  in play without taking up hours of the day.  Try for example playing simple car games, like counting how many times you see a yellow car, or playing eye-spy. For more detailed information on why play is important follow the link to an article written by David Elkind.  


Stack it up

Stack it Up


Edible Paint?!

Yummy Finger Fun!

It is important that children practice their fine motor skills so that they can use those fine motors skills to later learn things like reading and writing.  Things like playing with play doe or coloring could be very fun ways of developing these skills.  Children can paint things like sugar cookies, marshmallows, popcorn or whatever their favorite snack is! 


Writing Earlier with Less the Work

Learning to write requires fine motor skills. Children can develop these skills by doing activities that work their hands and fingers such as playing with Play-Doh. For a recipe for No-Bake Play-Doh click here. For an extra work out try playing with clay.

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