Let’s Talk About Play!

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Heather and her husband, Henry, with their two playful boys, Charley and Max.

Play. How does that word make you feel when you read it? Does it spark a memory from your childhood perhaps? What does play look like – feel like – sound like to you? Think about play for a moment. Keep that feeling of joy and playfulness with you as you read on to hear what my dear friend, Dr. Heather VonBank, Associate Professor of Family Consumer Science at MSU Mankato, has to say about play.   

For the past ten years now there has been an annual conference about play held in Clemson, SC, called The US Play Coalition Conference on the Value of Play. Heather has attended 9 out of the 10 years, and is a huge advocate for all things play related! After Heather got back from the three-day conference, her and I sat down over a glass wine to talk about play… while our 4 boys went outside to do just that… play. After several hilarious interruptions from boys with wet pants, to boys covered in mud up to their elbows, this is how the interview went and what I learned from Heather about PLAY. 

Q: How would you define the word play?

When I asked Heather to tell me how she would define the word play, she laughed and said “usually that is the first question I ask people when I am teaching a class or speaking at a conference about play”, then she went on to define play as this: Any activity, behavior, or action that brings people joy, entertainment, and benefits their social, emotional, cognitive, and physical well-being. She adds “You will just know it when you see it. It’s pleasurable, it’s entertaining. There’s no objective or desired outcome. It’s just fun!” It sounds simple right? 

Q: Why is play so important for developing minds & bodies?

Play is learning. All of the different movements and explorations create Neuro Connections, thus helping children to make sense of their environments. For example, when children are spinning they are figuring out where their hands are, coordination, etc… When we tell children to sit still, be quiet, stop moving, etc… we are actually limiting their brains development. Now of course, Heather and I talked about the flip side to that, and the need to teach children how to be respectful, have good manners, and such. Heather suggests to be reasonable with your expectations and to be mindful of the child’s age – you can’t expect a toddler to sit still and be quiet at a dinner table for 2 hours, it’s just not going to happen! 

Q: Do you feel that the Mankato community is doing a good job with “play”?

Mankato is a family oriented community! ECFE (Early Childhood and Family Education) is huge in Mankato – in fact, it is one of the biggest and most successful ECFE programs in the nation! Mankato definitely has pockets of people who are playful and who are doing things to promote play, however, there are also pockets of people who still don’t see the value in play or a fearful of play. Fear and National News stories (think Jacob Wetterling) have affected Minnesotan’s ability to play and to be free to some extent, but if you do your research you’ll see that our children are just as safe, if not safer than they were years ago. So don’t let irrational fears keep you from letting your children be free to roam and play! 

The Mankato area is fortunate to have some really awesome playgrounds and parks – and lots of them! Maybe Mankato could rethink where they are putting those playgrounds or what neighborhoods need new playgrounds? There are lots of new playgrounds popping up in new neighborhoods, but there are lots of older neighborhoods with playgrounds that could use an update. I think, like any community, we can always do better. 

Q: If you had a magic wand and could do just 3 things to make Mankato more playful for kiddos what would you do? 

The first thing would definitely be a  “Loose Parts Adventure Playground”! Not sure what that is? See an example here: Pop-Up Adventure Playgrounds

Heather’s son Charley, playing at the annual play day at Rasmussen Woods, organized by Heather, undergraduate students, and the Child Development Class from MSU.

Picture things like timber, wood, cardboard tubing, hammers, nails, building materials, tree cookies, tires, crates… random things that children can build with and create with freely. Children need to be challenged and allowed to take risks, without being unsafe. 

The 2nd thing Heather would do with her magic wand is have mandatory 40-minute recess at all schools! Children are designed to move and be creative. They need that time to play and burn off energy so they can be focused and ready to learn in the classroom again. 

The 3rd wish Heather would grant with her magic wand is to create community-wide acceptance of free play. We need to get the whole community on board with seeing the value of play for our children.

Q: What are your top tips for Mamas to be more playful with their children? 

Tell parents it’s okay to just let their kids play! You don’t have to play with them or direct the play, just be nearby, and be attentive. Be mindful of what they’re doing but don’t feel the need to jump in and tell them how to play! They just want to be seen and they want to be heard. This one was a big relief for me to hear, as I often have “mom guilt” for not sitting down and playing with my boys enough! Whew!

Heather and her son Charley getting messy!

This one is hard for a lot of Moms – but you need to find ways to let your kids be messy! Plan for messiness and just know that it is going to happen. (Remember the story in the intro to this interview about kids covered in mud?) 

You have to trust your kids. You have to trust their instincts and abilities! Our children deserve that from us as parents. They deserve to be trusted and allowed to figure out the world as they see it. When you’re at the playground and your child asks you to lift them up onto something on the playground… Don’t do it!! Let them figure it out! Failure should be an option. Our over-protectiveness is getting in the way of our children’s ability to naturally play and learn.

Q: Anything else you want to add? 

Think of your favorite childhood memory. Where were you? Who were you with? What were you doing? Most of the time we will answer that we were outdoors, with family and friends, getting dirty. Most of us did not grow up with our faces glued to the screen of a TV or a tablet! We need to create this type of environment for our children too. Children are watching us and looking at us as their role models. If we don’t want them to be on electronics, then we need to not be on electronics either! If we want our kids to unplug, then we need to unplug as well!

Well, there you have it Mankato! Let’s get outside, get messy, and get playing!

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Growing up in a family of 5 girls, Rachel had never pictured herself as a “Boy Mom”, but now that she is one, she loves it! Her oldest son, Paul is almost 8, and he loves reading, writing stories, Legos, and Tae Kwon Do! William is 4, and he is into sports, Batman, trucks, and is obsessed with donuts! Rachel met her husband, Chris, when they were in 9th and 10th grade at Mankato West High School, and they’ve been together ever since! After High School they lived in Minneapolis for 7 years, but always knew that they would move back to this great community when they were ready to start their family! Rachel works for a local non-profit focused on solving youth hunger, which is something she is very passionate about! She is also an Interior Designer, and works part time at a local clothing boutique! She loves volunteering at her son’s school, and is also the President of the PTA! Some things that keep Rachel happy & sane are early morning fitness classes at the Y, running, a glass of wine with friends or family, shopping, coffee, and getaways with her hubby.