Think back to when you were little. Were you ever told things like "don't do that with your trucks. That's not how we play with them," or "play properly with with your blocks please. Blocks are only for building."
It's not uncommon. Society in general seems to think that there are correct ways to play with toys and incorrect ways. I do understand that toys cost money. We don't want them wrecked and we want to teach our children to respect their own and others property.
That's fair. However, beyond the concerns about safety and care of toys, there still seems to lurk an attitude that children must learn to play correctly, and use every toy the "right way," and that it's somehow bad or damaging for children to play with something the 'wrong' way.
Well, I challenge that! I believe that there are a number of excellent reasons why it's great to think outside the box when it comes to playing with toys in different ways.
1. It helps develop creative thinking. This is not the same thing as artistry, although of course they can overlap. It's a mindset and a way of coming up with original ideas and seeing things from different perspectives, generating interesting concepts and presenting information in new ways.
2. It helps develop problem-solving skills. This is another vital skill in today's rapidly changing world and one that is valued highly by many employers. A problem-solving mindset asks "hmm, what's going on here? Why is this a problem? How can I solve it? What would happen if I try this? What effect does this have on that?"
3. It helps develop resourcefulness. Playing with things in different ways and finding alternative uses for toys helps build a mindset of being able to substitute, combine, adapt, fix or change things when there's a problem. It's the kind of thinking that has us say, "hmmm, what can I use instead of stickytape," rather than "oh dear, I've run out of tape so I can't do this until I buy more."
4. It extends the life of toys. Finding new ways to play with toys has them last longer, because rather than growing out of something and then not using it any more, you're looking for how can this toy now be played with in a new way, or combined with other toys to create a whole new activity. Something that may usually lose interest for a child within months when played with in one way can become something that is used again and again for years - when played with in a variety of ways.
5. It enhances learning at every stage of development. Take the video at the bottom of this post for example, about our geometric blocks puzzle. That's a toy with ways to play that are engaging for ages 9-10 months through to 3-4 years old. For little children to have toys that they're not quite able to play with or use "properly" yet (provided they're safe) is great for providing challenge and helping them develop problem-solving skills. For older children, a toy like the geometric blocks puzzle may be simple as a puzzle, but letting them play with it helps them develop creativity as they look for new uses.
So how do you actually encourage children to look for new ways to play with their toys?
A. Be open to the idea of allowing children to play with things in ways that aren't their original or intended use. Ask yourself - is my child playing with this toy in a way that will break it, damage property or hurt others? If the answer is no, then let them do it, even if the voice of your mother is yelling in your head "that's not the PROPER way to play with that."
B. Ask yourself, "how many ways can we play with this toy?" Set yourself a challenge to think up as many as possible. Of course you should include your child in this exploration, and you can ask others for their ideas too. Ask your child, "if we didn't play with the truck like a truck, what else could it be?"
C. Model creative uses for everyday items. Does your child need a roof for their block house? Grab a lightweight cutting board. Tupperware can be used for all manner of things, not just food! By looking for new ways to use objects, you model creative thinking, problem-solving and resourcefulness for your child.
D. Look for inspiration online. Is your child tired of playing with blocks, or stuck repeating the same ways of playing constantly? Jump onto pinterest and search for "block play" or google "creative ways to play with blocks" or similar phrases and you'll find a wealth of great ideas.
E. Ask questions. What can we put in this? What can we build with this? What else could it be? Have you ever played the game in a group where you're given an object such as a paperclip and each person takes a turn thinking of a new way to use a paperclip? That's a great game to play with children of around 3-4 and up (can be played verbally in the car too), but you don't have to play that game - it's about applying that mindset.
F. Don't be afraid to anthropomorphise objects. This means assigning a non-human object human characteristics. Playing in the bath one time, my 2.5 year-old grabbed a plastic cup and said, "hello, I'm Wiggadigga and I can scoop things." I immediately grabbed a long funnel and said, "hi Wiggadigga. I'm Longybongy. Can I play with you?" Suddenly we had two characters who got up to all kinds of adventures. Turning objects into characters allows them to do all manner of things they wouldn't do if they were a cup or a funnel!
Here's a video I made with some ideas for how to play with a set of geometric blocks. The activities range from babies of 10-12 months through to doing maths with 3-4 year-olds - years of use from a simple puzzle! I invite you to make some time to get down on the floor and have a play with your child today, and ask yourself "how many ways can we play?"