4 Steps for Better Play with a Purpose

4 Steps for Better Play with a Purpose by Ben Moss

Not long after I started as the director of Circle F Dude Ranch, I found myself in a conversation about the camp’s mission with Paul Wells, owner of camp.   We discussed many things but one of the things we came back to often was that children do not have enough opportunities to play outdoors.   We both agreed that play is critical in the development of children and needs to be part of every camper’s experience at camp.   Paul often tells me that our campers should “Play with a Purpose.”

So, what does this mean?  I think to understand “Play with a Purpose,” we should start by exploring play overall.   Play can look like many things.  It could be time spent on a playground, riding a bike, video games, board games with friends, toys, or even make-believe.  For children, almost all aspects of play are teaching them basic and needed life-skills.   Furthermore, outdoor and imaginative play is teaching a child to be creative and non-linear problem solver.    Play with other children helps focus on teamwork and conversations, which in turn helps children to expand their interpersonal communication and conflict management skills.

Play with a Purpose is realizing the underlying life skill growth that happens when we play.   Learning to allow others play with our toys, such as blocks, helps us to learn to share and be flexible in the future.   Taking turns while playing a board game teaches us the importance of patience and being part of a team.   Play that requires concentration and practice to become better, like learning to dance or shooting a bow, helps us to learn patience and perseverance.     It doesn’t take much to see the deeper value of play.

Some things in our society have begun to stand in the way of this type of play.   The days of parents telling their children to go outside and not come back until it is time to eat have disappeared.    Computers, phones, and gaming systems often take the place of sand boxes, swing sets, and riding bikes.    My focus today is not to dwell on technology; I do not see it as an evil that is destroying our children. Technology is extremely valuable and in many cases, can teach some of the life skills we have been discussing.  Like all good things, technology must be approached with moderation.  My daughter is allowed a limited amount of “screen time” each day.   Technology, however, can’t replace classic interpersonal play.   It also can’t replace the tactile experience of the real outdoor world.

So how do we provide better play with purpose times for our children?   Like many things in life there is no easy pathway.   Turning off a television or video game can be very difficult, especially if your child does not want this to happen.

Step One:            Identify and maintain “no electronic” times daily.

More and more, child physiologists and doctors are recommending that there be an unplug time every day within our homes.    A time when the television, internet, phones, or video games are turned off.    This requires our children to pick up books, play with toys, or go outside.

Step Two:            Find an outdoor playground or park to go once a week.

I always find it funny to see people play games like tennis and golf on a computer screen when they could often head to a local park to play for real with other people.   Children love playgrounds.    Within the last week, I saw the smile of my daughter as she went down a slide for the first time.    Playgrounds offer the chance for your children to meet other children and to create imaginative play.   It also can’t hurt us parents to get outside and maybe even play a little ourselves.    This is where I note how much my wife enjoyed a swing at my daughter’s playground.

Step Three:         Play with our children at least once a day.

I know we all live busy lives, but finding 15 minutes to play with our kids teaches them the world.   Any parent out there understands how our children mimic what they see.  Sitting down to play with your child gives you the opportunity to be at their level.   Teach them values in a fun way.    For example, my daughter learned to say “please” in sign language through play.    Now when she wants a block or doll that Dad is holding, she says please.   In many cases 15 minutes can become an hour when you let it.

Step Four:           Sign them up for experiences with others.

We as parents have become very guarded with our children, but their growth depends on our ability to let go and allow them to be independent.   As they get older we must give them that chance.   From a one-day field trip, to spring break camps, to two weeks of summer camp; these fun and playful opportunities to get out into the world with their peers can really change their life.

As a new year begins, I encourage you to seek out more play opportunities for your child.    Remembering that in the end its more than just fun; its teaching them to be smart, polite, and talented individuals as they grow up.

Ben Moss is the Director at Circle F Dude Ranch Camp in Lake Wales Florida.   He has a degree in Speech and Interpersonal Communication from Southern Illinois University.   He has worked in the field of youth development  for over 20. 

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