What’s Stopping You? Tips and Tools for Engaging in Play

With David Kleeman

ToyInfo’s trend team asked David Kleeman, Senior Vice President of the PlayCollective’s Insights Program, a global “think tank” focused on play, entertainment and learning for children and families, to share some thoughts on some of the challenges that adults face when engaging in play, and what tools are available to help overcome those obstacles.

Like many adults, I find it difficult to fully engage in child’s play. I’m reluctant to get down on the floor (or uncertain if I can get back up!), unsure how to respond to whimsical twists in the child’s narrative, or too eager to steer the interaction in a teacherly direction.

I’m not alone. Even one of the leading designers of open-ended, imaginative children’s apps found his skills rusty when playacting with his daughter.

Still, we know from research how important it is that adults join their children in play, and fully engage with their toys, games and fantasy. We not only help kids develop essential skills like focus and self control, perspective taking, communication and engaged learning, but we also gain a valuable window into their growing minds and bodies.

Based on my observations, there seem to be four big challenges that keep caregivers from fully engaging with children in what former Lego Foundation CEO Randa Grob-Zakhary calls the “three E” words of play: exploration, experience and experimentation. I’ve identified those challenges as: confidence, time, space and culture.

Fortunately, forward-thinking toy and game companies and media developers are innovating to help parents overcome those challenges and be more confident explorers, open to experiencing life’s playful moments, and eager to experiment with classic and new ways of play.

Here are a few thoughts on obstacles that adult may face, and some of the inventive tools available to help you engage in play:

George Bernard Shaw said, "We don't stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing." That’s all well and good, but many of us feel inhibited when it comes to play – whether we have trouble freeing our rusty imaginations, or worry over having the knowledge to be our child’s “first teacher.”

Tip: Luckily, there’s a host of resources out there that can help build parents’ confidence and knowledge, such as text messages that deliver timely tips about vocabulary-building play. These tools can offer simple, concrete and supportive ways to play and learn with your child.

Every parent knows the dilemma of being asked to join in a play activity that will last an hour, when bedtime’s in 15 minutes. Children get frustrated, too, when they’re pulled away from a toy or game in which they’re fully immersed.

Tip: There are some great apps available that help parents brainstorm activities fit for any schedule, including Toywheel and Sesame Workshop’s Family Play app, which ask helpful questions like “how much time do you have” before recommending play ideas that fit the context.

Wouldn’t you love to have ideas for creating a playful trip to the grocery store, or for making the 2,184th trip to the playground feel like the first?  Play can happen anywhere, and recognizing the possibilities around you just might transform a dull or anxious moment!

Tip: In today’s digital world, toymakers and app developers have created tools to make any space into a playground: TaleBlazer, Hidden Park and XNote all enable families to create and play location-based games that blend physical landscapes with augmented reality, which make for endless play possibilities. There are also online maps like KaBOOM!’s that help adults identify nearby playgrounds and other play spaces for their kids.

So many ways of play are linked to a particular time, place or set of traditions. Games, songs and toys that originate from different places may be similar but with a unique “twist”– consider jump rope rhymes, how simple ball games acquire unique rules, or the fact that toys like yo-yos and the “cup, string and ball” exist by different names in many cultures.

Tip: Playing with children offers parents and grandparents opportunities to note similarities and differences between play here and now, and play in another time and place. Digital tools are emerging to help generations share stories or create new ones, even across distance.

Fred Rogers often noted that “play is really the work of children.”  It can be work for adults as well, but what a rewarding job it is when we find the time, space and confidence to lose ourselves in pure exploration, experimentation and the experience of play!

PlayCollectiveDavid Kleeman is Senior Vice President of Insights Programs and PlayVangelist for PlayCollective, a research and strategy company in New York built around children and families, play and learning. He is a strategist, analyst, author and speaker, and for a quarter century has led the children’s media industry in developing sustainable, kid-friendly solutions.