It seems to so counter-intuitive to us adults that children need to be “taught” how to play. After all, they are kids! It is what they do! Think about it though, we call play “the work of children,” how many of you knew exactly what to do the first day on the job?
There is so much that goes into even the simplest looking “play,” whether it is zooming cars along the rug or building with Legos. They have to come up with the plan and keep it in their head, they have to coordinate their body to do what they want it to do and solve obstacles on the fly. If there are other kids (or adults!) involved it adds another layer of social awareness and interaction that all has to be maintained while also keeping up the play scenario! Phew, exhausting just to think about it!
Children need to be coached on how to navigate these play scenarios, and one of the most effective ways is modeling it for them. Tonight, I “taught” my son how to play grocery store. We made a list together and then I asked him to get the items and put them in his basket. We rang them up on the cash register and then he started coming up with ideas of what he wanted to make in his kitchen.
He has gone with us to the store hundreds of times, so that modeling combined with what we did tonight gives him a formula that he can take and riff on himself. When you play with your kids, or give them ideas on what to do next, or do it yourself while they watch you…you are modeling play for them.
With children who are learning to play together the most important thing they need is language and ideas for how to be part of a group. This could be as simple as how to join a group of kids who are playing (or how to stop playing together when they are done!). Watch a preschool teacher and you will realize that “breaking up fights” is really more about giving them the language to express themselves then solving the issue for them.