Designing play at home: Tips from an early years educator
Ashrita Johnson is a passionate teacher, described by her six-year-old students as 'creative' and 'amazing', which she takes as the highest compliment. She is always designing play experiences at home for her daughter and chronicles their stories on Instagram (@makingplayhappen).
Play is defined as 'a way to engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation'. Go back and read that definition one more time and take a moment to reflect - imagine if your child could learn everything they need to, and develop all the age appropriate skills in a fun way instead of it being a chore! Think back to your school days, what do you remember fondly? Math homework? Spelling tests? Or climbing trees and playing lagori with your friends? I remember enjoying my lunch break - eating while chatting with my friends and making up our own games to play!
Our job as parents and caregivers is to create a lifelong love for learning in our young ones. Children are naturally curious and want to explore, we just need to provide them with an environment to do so. Now, this is not always easy, but as a new mom, I took it on as a challenge. After all, don't we all want what's best for our children? This year we have had the opportunity to work with our children at home and I am truly grateful. I have had a lot of time with my daughter, to be there while she achieved each milestones and celebrate the little wins each day. Here is my journey of how I have been making play happen in our home.
Creating a schedule
Children thrive with a schedule and so do adults. It holds us accountable and gives us less reasons to make excuses and postpone things. I created a schedule for my child and shared it with all family members. We live in a joint family and people 'signed up' for different times they could play with her. While this sounds very formal, it worked extremely well. It not only gave me a break and I could plan what I wanted to do during that time, but also ensured my daughter was always getting the stimulation she needed.
Here are some tips to set up a schedule.
- Fixed wake up time followed by a morning routine involving brushing teeth, changing clothes, breakfast
- Fixed nap times, even if your child is not 'sleepy', nap time can be quiet time, where the room is dark, voices quiet and your child can read a book or lay in bed.
- Fixed bedtime after a bedtime routine including a warm bath, pajamas, bedtime story and brushing teeth.
Once these are fixed, you can find times in between that work best for your family. Walk outside in the morning, outdoor time in the evening and a structured activity to develop age appropriate skills in the afternoon (more details to follow).
You can also include your child in household chores like watering plants, laundry, cooking and cleaning.
Involve family members and encourage them to choose a time. For example, dad can take the baby down for a walk every morning.
I have been an early years educator for over a decade but have never worked with babies from 0 to 1. As a mom to an infant, despite my background, I did not know where to begin. A plethora of activities are available online and they can be quite overwhelming and confusing. For starters, I didn't know which 'approach' I wanted to follow - Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio Emilia - the list is never ending. So I decided to follow my child, and trust me, she told me exactly what she wanted and what she needed!
Here are some points to keep in mind while developing activities at home.
Keep it simple.
I cannot emphasize this enough. You are not developing your skills, so the less you do the better. 90% child's work and 10% yours. If any activity takes more time for you to set up than your child to play, you need to rethink it. Also, when buying toys, the less the toy does, the more it gives your child the power to get creative.
We have very few toys for my daughter, and often times use old boxes or things I find in the kitchen. For example, a set of metal measuring cups or cookie cutters work as great stackers.
Follow your child.
Try and observe what your child plays with when you are not around. What sparks curiosity and interest. Is it chappals or switches? Or maybe even your TV remote? Think about how you can give them that experience and develop the skills they need at the same time. Can you add different shoes and chappals to their shelf (clean ones of course) and they can practice dressing themselves? Or maybe get a doll that can be dressed? Maybe make a sensory board with different switches and even a remote for them to explore?
Try to minimise how many times you tell your child 'no' and give them an opportunity to explore what they're interested in, in a safe way! One day, my daughter took her cup of water that she was drink and started running towards the balcony. Now, I didn't want it to spill, but I bit my lip and just watched what she was doing. She tipped the cup over to water the plants! Wow, that was a huge win for me - she had watched the plants being watered several times and wanted to do it herself. I bought her a watering can and now this is something she does every day.
Consistency is key.
Children may not be able to tell time but they remember that after bath, it's story time or when I wake up from my nap, I go for a walk. Try to be as consistent as possible. With older children, you can even display their daily schedule including visuals so they know what's next. Also, it's important to be consistent with the location of things. It's important for your child to know where their books and toys are so that they can access them independently. If changing places is inevitable, then involve your child in the process so they see the change happening.
I usually put out 6 provocations including books on her shelf for her to access independently and keep it for a week or as long as she's interested. Some provocations stay longer, while some which don't spark curiosity and joy and rotates at the end of the week. This prevents your child from feeling overwhelmed with the number of items outside and makes clean up easy and possible.
Ditch the toys
For about 30 minutes a day, try to play with your child without any toys. A game of peek a boo or tag does wonders. You can also develop simple games using body parts. This not only helps you bond with your child but also helps build language and creativity. Besides, making up your own games is so much fun!
It's really easy to look at what other people are doing on social media and feel overwhelmed and disheartened that you're not doing enough. But remember that learning happens all the time, and no one knows your child better than you. With just a few intentional changes you can easily make play happen in your home!