Changing the Way We Think About Play

February 17, 2020  |  Published by

I can remember sitting in the living room with my two nephews as they thoughtfully put together an enchanting world for their Octonauts and I asked, “Why do you think the Octonauts live under water?”

My brother-in-law pipes in, “Because they are made to look like octopi and obviously they live in the water.”

I tried again, “Jack, how do you think the Octonauts communicate with one another under water?”

Again from the kitchen, my brother-in-law answers for them with an exasperated tone, “They can talk like normal people. Haven’t you ever watched the show with them?”

I rolled my eyes, muttering under my breath, “Yes, I know the answers to these questions. I’m not a moron. I’m actually practicing my early childhood development skills.”

He didn’t realize that I was trying to make connections for them, question what they were doing, in order to stimulate their brain development. I laughed to myself because my brother-in-law, though a wonderful father, is an IT Program Manager and his world is very black and white.

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I imagine most parents are like this. We ask questions to get a direct answer. Half of the time, we’re running out the door like a family about to miss their flight on Christmas day. We are on the way to soccer, gymnastics, piano, you name it, and our questions revolve around, “Did you eat? What did you have? Did you go to the bathroom? Why are your socks in the pantry? Where’s your helmet? Is it our turn to bring snack? Where’s your brother? I told him to get in the car!”

Lives are busy, parents are frazzled. We move from one activity to the next at lightning speed. It’s exhausting, right? Taking the time to intentionally ask our young children questions that promote open-ended thought process isn’t on our radar. Frankly, most of us can’t remember our child’s name, much less know what the difference is between an open-ended question and close ended, nor how they impact children.

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Well, good news. I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Just a small smattering of open-ended questions during the day have a HUGE impact on children’s executive function. That simply means how the brain develops so that children can acquire reasoning skills, logical thinking, problem solving, and yes, even helps with regulating their emotions.

Wouldn’t you love it if just once they could solve the problem of who had the toy first? And the best part of this secret, it is not that difficult and it won’t take you much time! I promise! There are a couple simple ways to encourage brain development that are easy to incorporate into the day. For example, the next time your child is playing with blocks, instead of asking them, “What colors are you using,” try, “Why did you decide to put the red blocks on top of the blue ones?” This simple shift allows children’s brains to create new synapsis, a fancy word for connections, which forces them to have to think about their answer.

As adults, we often ask questions where there is a known answer, which are typically closed-ended. “How many do you see? What color is that? Do you like painting?” The next time your child’s structure falls down and he or she is upset, try asking, “What could we do to fix it?” Or when your child has brought you a finished piece of artwork, instead of saying, “Oh, that’s pretty,” try asking, “How did you know where to put your butterfly?” Your effort of making these small changes will stimulate incredible brain energy and you can fall asleep exhausted, yet content at the end of the day knowing your child is on track to be a super genius!

Michelle Hixson
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