3 secrets for getting your kids to play longer

16 Jul 2017, Posted by alanacherneck_0 in Uncategorized
3 secrets to getting kids to play

Do you struggle with getting your kids to play? Particularly, staying interested and engaged in play?

A study published in The American Journal of Play, noted that last 50 years has seen a sharp decline in children’s play. (Gray, 2011) Today’s kids have the largest toy collections in history, so why is it that our kids are playing less?

Parents are becoming increasingly challenged with supporting their children’s sustained play. Busy activity schedules, increasing demands of homework, and struggles of work-life balance make it difficult for families to carve out time for sustained, unstructured play at home. The decrease in free play can also be directly related to the increase of screen time: television, video games, “educational apps” and YouTube channels lure children in with their flashy, fast-paced, instantly gratifying platforms.

While most parents understand the benefits of play, and the importance of limited screen time, they are competing against some very strong forces indeed. {Can you relate? Do your children become transfixed while watching YouTube episodes of random children opening “blind bags” filled with ridiculously overpriced tiny toys?}

It is a powerful marketing force at play here, and parents’ best intentions are often overthrown by the hefty efforts of toy manufacturers. According to a report of the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on Advertising and Children, “it is estimated that advertisers spend more than $12 billion per year to reach the youth market and that children view more than 40,000 commercials each year.”

Keeping kids engaged in play for extended periods of time is not an easy feat in today’s technology-driven, commercialized world. Kids inevitably “check out,” get bored, start to squabble or simply become distracted.

But children need to play. Our brains are wired for play.

importance of play

Play is good for the brain. In fact, play is so important for optimal child development that it has been recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right of every child.  Play allows children to exercise their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional growth. (Ginsburg, 2007) Play is the primary mode for which children come to form theories about their world. As they master their world, play “helps children develop new competencies that lead to enhanced confidence and the resiliency they will need to face future challenges.” 

A hands-on, real-life, experiential encounter with the world one that engages all the senses – is the most important way for a young child to make meaning. Children do not learn to walk by watching a programme about walking. They learn to walk by walking. By falling down. And then getting back up. Over and over again.  {This is a well-known theory called Constructivism – that we learn through our experiences – not through the passive transmission of information on a screen}.

We know the importance of play for children’s developing brains, so how can parents incorporate authentic play into their child’s day, to keep kids engaged and unplugged, so that they “go deep” into sustained play, using important facets like creativity and imagination?

In this post, I share a 3 step secret formula for setting kids up to play for prolonged periods. I have used the process both in the classroom, and with my own children at home, and I get good results.  Like anything, sustained play takes practice. And the more we insist on play (vs. screentime) at home, the more children will come to accept it.


Step 1:  Set it up

Kids sometimes need a bit of motivation to play. I like to set up a “play prompt” – an invitation to play, if you will. Sometimes, this involves setting things up in a new way {placing dollhouse elements in a tray of rice or sand, moving the trains to the floor with Washi tape, taking play outdoors}… or setting toys up as though they invite a story to be told or re-told {placing three bears, each with a bowl in front of them, along with a doll to replicate The Three Bears}. Here are a few examples I’ve set up, and below you’ll find a Freebie for 6 Easy Play Prompts using items you already own:

easy play prompts


under the sea play prompt

Download your Freebie! 6 Easy Play Prompts {including Materials List} 

easy play prompts



Step 2:  Start them off

Does it ever feel like your kids need an instruction manual to play? It seems like our kids have forgotten the art of play! But trust me on this one. INEVITABLY, each time I set our girls up to play {and get involved for the first few moments} they play longer! Just begin by introducing them to the “playscape,” and start pretending! It may feel awkward at first {and you PROBABLY may not feel like it}, but trust me, if you want to see your kids engaged {thus more time for you!} then you need to get them going. Sit alongside them, and engage with them. Be silly with them. Bring out your inner child. Five minutes is usually all it takes!

Step 3:  Thou shall not interrupt!

As tempted as you might be to commend the kids for such cooperative playing, RESIST the temptation! I am not sure what science there is to support this notion, but it seems that inevitably the moment I make a comment about how nicely our girls are playing {or how creative they are being, or how interesting their creations are…} THAT IS WHEN THE PLAYTIME CRUMBLES! It’s like they get taken out of “flow” and become distracted, and no longer wish to make believe. Unless there is an emergency, do not interrupt your kids!

Instead, document what you see. Write down your observations so that you can better plan for future play prompts, and make notes about which toys really get used. This information will help you with your toy rotation schedule. (A future blog post coming your way!)

Once you notice that your kids have “checked out,” and are no longer interested – looking for a change of activity, you can applaud them for such great, imaginative play. Be sure to provide concrete feedback about what you observed {“I noticed that you really got into character! Great job creating that scary story for your dinosaurs!} Make sure you also compliment their cooperative play: “I noticed how well you took turns and shared! Nice work!”

When your kids play, everyone wins.  As parents, we need to provide richer, more enticing conditions for kids to want to play, because we are competing against the strong forces of technology.  The space that surrounds kids, in addition to the quality of experiences we offer – through toys, loose parts, books and materials – will have the most profound effect on our children for years to come. Play is not a luxury, but a necessity.  

What does playtime look like in YOUR house? What kinds of play prompts have you set up for your kids? Share your ideas in the comments – I’m ALWAYS on the lookout for new ideas for our girls!


Dansky, J. (1980). Make-believe: A mediator of the relationship between play and associative fluency. Child Development, 51, 576–579.

Ginsburg, K. (2007). The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bonds. Pediatrics, 119(1).

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