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Playtime Unplugged

It’s no secret that today’s fast-paced lifestyle leaves many of us feeling as if we’re running on a never-ending treadmill. We’re pressured to over-schedule, overdo, and overspend. It takes a conscious effort to simplify and allow time for quiet and reflection in our adult lives. No wonder our children mirror our overly-busy lives, often to their emotional detriment. Their days may be too full of scheduled activities to allow time for healthy, unstructured play, and play is the childhood equivalent of work; it needs to happen. There’s power in your child’s unstructured, unplugged, creative play.

Plugged or unplugged

There’s good news. When given a quiet, unplugged environment, children will enter into creative play. They’ll use the props around them: household items, open-ended toys, art supplies, etc., and they’ll pretend something. Like adults, children need space in which to create. They need permission to move from an ‘entertain me’ attitude to a ‘let’s see what I can do on my own’ attitude. While screen activities can be healthy and educational, it’s a wise parent who is proactive in providing their children regular quiet times for creative play.

The benefits

Child development experts such as Piaget and Vygotsky believe that creative play is key to a child’s social, emotional, and cognitive development. Children learn by experience, and pretend play provides a safe environment to test various scenarios found in real life. 

Cognitive development - Pretend play scenarios promote foundational understandings for future language and mathematical success. For example, the simple process of acting out ‘going to the store’ with several different outcomes (today we bought apples; yesterday we bought carrots), lays the foundation for children to contemplate more than one solution to a problem. And engaging in dialogue created for play characters is a certain vocabulary builder.

Social development - When children enter into pretend play with another child, there are opportunities for growth in social skills, such as taking turns or agreeing on rules. But even when a child pretends alone, there are social benefits as a child directs the play of several characters, manages problems as they arise, and functions as ‘king’ or ‘queen’ of the created realm.

Emotional development - In pretend play, children have the opportunity to address situations which are causing stress or fear. Perhaps your child is afraid of an upcoming visit to the doctor. Pretend playing ‘doctor’s office’ is a wonderful way to de-stress and face those fears in a safe environment: your child’s own play area.

As your family life unfolds week by week, be proactive in scheduling both structured and unstructured play times. While structured activities, such as music lessons or team sports, have their place in a well-balanced life, our challenge today is to identify quiet spaces and protect them. There’s power in your child’s unstructured, unplugged, creative play.

A list of suggestions for creative play stations in the home:

Doctors Office: A play medical kit, white shirt, bandages.

Post Office: Supplies of paper, pencils, markers, envelopes, stickers for stamps.

Hair Salon: Combs, spray bottle, sheet for drape, dolls.

Grocery Store: Recycled food containers, cardboard boxes, pretend food items, play cash register, play money.

Dentists Office: Toothbrushes, pretend toothpaste, drape, floss, dolls.

Restaurant: Paper and pencil for orders, pretend food, play cookware and dishes.

School: Books, paper and pencils, art supplies, white boards, magnetic letters, etc.

Author: Paper, tape recorder, pencils, paper, stapler, stickers.

Veterinarian: Stuffed animals, bandages, pretend food, baskets, boxes.

Florist: Plastic or silk flowers, vases, jars, scissors, tape, cash register, money.

Cheryl Johnson, M.Ed., is the Director of the Child Development Program of Washington State University. Jan Pierce, M.Ed., is a retired teacher and freelance writer specializing in education and family life articles. She is the author of Homegrown Readers, available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Find Jan at This article first appeared in MomSense Magazine, Winter, 2012. 


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