A Guide To Constructive Play For Parents: Benefits, Types & 7 Expert Tips
Playtime, experts tell us time and again, is a vital part of growing up, learning, and brain development. It allows kids to engage in the world around them, learn tactile sensations, comprehend concepts like numbers and letters, understand boundaries and self-regulation, and explore their imaginations. There are, of course, more engaging and effective ways to play to encourage this journey in growing up: That's what parents call "constructive play."
Here, we break down what experts mean when they talk about "constructive play," benefits, and how to encourage it.
What is constructive play.
Whenever a child is creating (or "constructing") something, they are engaging in constructive play. This can come in the form of building blocks, drawing with crayons, making forms in sand or mud, forming science experiments—or even disassembling those very same things.
"Kids need nature, they need unstructured time, and they need play. It may seem like this is just 'fun,' but we know from research that this is how they grow," says licensed physiologist Nicole Beurkens, Ph.D., CNS, about playtime.
Here, a nonexhaustive list of the benefits of constructive play for kids:
- Physical activity actually enhances brain development as kids age: The brain's sensory-processing systems develop as you encounter the world around you, and that cannot happen if you don't have enough movement or engagement with different objects.
- It teaches children the importance of downtime and unstructured learning.
- Helps them learn problem-solving skills—as they will likely come up against roadblocks during their play that they will have to work around or work through.
- It introduces them to the idea of mistakes and learning from them rather than giving up. The way we learn how to do something right is by doing it wrong a few times first.
- Builds confidence. When they complete an activity that they set out to achieve—making a castle, drawing something—it can help them understand that they are capable, competent little humans.
- Develops social skills, especially if the constructive play is done with other kids. As they are building or working on a shared goal, the kids will learn cooperation, sharing, taking directions, and how to be a leader to others.
Types of constructive play:
This type of constructive play involves any type of activity in which kids learn how to measure, count, and understand spatial concepts (light, weight, height, distance, and so on). It can be done via a variety of activities: things as simple as stacking blocks to measuring ingredients to play bake.
"Math is much more than just learning arithmetic and solving equations. Cooking, scheduling, doing chores, and playing games are just a few things your kids probably already do at home that involve math concepts and skills. Give kids more responsibility in these areas so they actually learn how to use math in the real-life activities they will be doing for the rest of their lives," Beurkens tells us about activities to try at home. "Young children can count things around the house, make patterns with toys or found objects, sort blocks by shape or color, and play simple board games."
Reading and language
Reading and language play helps kids obviously build their speaking and reading skills, but it can expand their vocabulary, help them communicate with you and others, and help them engage in the world of abstract thinking.
"Aside from books, a plethora of other daily tasks involve reading. Following instructions for art and building projects, playing board games, and listening to podcasts or audiobooks all flex kids' reading muscles and ensure that they retain and improve their reading skills while at home," Beurkens tells us. "You can have your kids write fun stories to share, come up with new lyrics to favorite songs, or make a gratitude list to share with one another at dinner."
Creative play involves their imagination while also dealing with the tangible. You see this when kids make sculptures in sand, when they model mini homes for imaginary families, and when they engage in the arts.
Tips on how parents can encourage constructive play.
The best way to support constructive play with your kid is to be there and be present. Really, it usually doesn't take much more than that. Here are some examples of how you can be mindful of constructive play with your kids:
- Stick to the basics: Maximizing your kid's playtime is shockingly (and purposefully) simple: By reducing overstimulation and letting them pick what they play with, they'll engage more with the activities you've given them. "Less is more," says Simone Davies, teacher and author of The Montessori Toddler: A Parent's Guide to Raising a Curious and Responsible Human Being. Keep it at about six to 10 options ("Your child can only master a few skill sets at a time," says Davies).
- Be a role model: Kids learn by watching you do things. If they're new to an activity or toy, you can lead by example and start playing with it first. Soon, they'll likely catch on and jump in.
- Ask questions and be present to answer some, too: Engage with the kid so they are able to understand and conceptualize what they are working on. If they are building things, like say with blocks, ask about what they are making, what happens in the building, and so on.
- Think about it from your child's perspective, spatially: Keep toys within reach of the child so they're easily accessible during playtime. "You should think about things through your child's perspective—literally get on their level and see how they view the space," says Davies.
- Use sensorially pleasing objects: Davies also recommends toys made with natural materials, like wood, metal, and paper, instead of plastic, flashy things. First, your child is going to be touching and playing with these, so you'll feel more comfortable with them doing so with natural materials. Second, the tactile sensation will be different for each material—not like plastic, which tends to feel the same—so it's a more stimulating experience. (Oh, it's also more sustainable.)
- Create a calm—not overwhelming—play space: "I'm not sure at what point we decided that kids' decorations should be overwhelmingly bright, but that doesn't help guide them because they don't know where to look," says Davies. "Instead, create a calming, neutral backdrop where they'll only be drawn to the bright, fun activities."
- Know when to let them be: Sure, you want to be engaged with their play, but at some point, their little creative minds will likely take over and they'll be off into their fantasy lands. (This is good! They're engaging their imaginations!) If you see this happening, feel free to take a back seat.
Playtime is so much more than what meets the eye. Your kid is not only entertaining themselves, but they are learning new concepts and skills, developing their little brains, and having fun all the while.
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Alexandra Engler is the beauty director at mindbodygreen and host of the beauty podcast Clean Beauty School. Previously, she's held beauty roles at Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and Allure.com. In her current role, she covers all the latest trends in the clean and natural beauty space, as well as lifestyle topics, such as travel. She received her journalism degree from Marquette University, graduating first in the department. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.