Play — it's the activity that practically defines kids' growing up years. They do it during recess, after school, and anytime they want to turn a boring task into an exciting one or pass the time by pretending they're other people living in far more exciting places.
As adults, we remember the games we played, but what we probably don't remember — and didn't realize at the time — is how deeply play impacted our own evolution. In the moment, we thought we were just having fun, but in reality those pure moments were teaching us everything from how to relate to others to how to solve the problems in our path.
To spread the word about the power of play, Romper teamed up with DairyPure to explore the incredible things that can happen when parents put a premium on play. To share her experience, New York City-based mom Bethany Ciotola and her three boys joined the fun for a DIY version of one of their favorite activities: playing make believe and dressing up as superheroes.
Between fighting crime and saving the world, Bethany shared how she's raising her sons with room for their imaginations to wander and grow. Here are her tips generating pure, unobstructed moments of imaginative play with your family.
1. Create A Safe Space
When it comes to setting her kids up to freely express their imaginations, the first thing Bethany emphasizes is creating a space in which they feel comfortable being themselves. This rings particularly true in today's day and age when the confines of play are being tested and stretched; Bethany notes the importance of allowing kids to choose how they want to play, independent of social norms or expectations.
"[It's crucial to create] a safe space where they can let their imaginations run wild," Bethany tells Romper. "Some boys want to dance and some girls want to play baseball — I believe it’s not up to us to force kids into anything. I love that now parents are giving kids the freedom to choose what they want."
2. Don't Push An Agenda
No matter how much you want your kids to love the same things that you did when you were growing up, continuing to push your own preferences even after kids lose interest will only stifle their imaginations and deter them from fully owning the moments of play that make them feel like themselves.
Bethany's advice is simple: Expose kids to your passions and interests, but once you do, step back and let them take the reins. If they love the music, movies, and games you grew up loving, wonderful! If not, accept it and refocus on supporting whatever sparks their creativity.
3. Seek Out Teaching Moments
As much as Bethany encourages play for play's sake, she also points out that moments of imagination can double as valuable learning experiences.
"My 3-year-old is a little scared of the dark, but when he puts on a superhero costume, he immediately takes on an I-can-do-anything persona. I’ll find him going into a dark room, turning a light on, and cheering for himself."
Instances like this demonstrate the true value play can have; what starts as a simple moment of make believe can end up being an effective tool for teaching kids everything from self-confidence to facing their fears.
4. Stick To A Schedule
As great as organic and spontaneous playtime sounds, it's often an impossibility for modern families with jam-packed schedules. In hectic seasons, Bethany suggests carving out pockets of time entirely dedicated to letting kids' imaginations run wild. This way, they'll get to enjoy special moments of play, plus a dedicated — not distracted — parent.
"I make space in between dinner and going to bed, and dedicate it to having playtime where the kids can wind down but also get some energy out. That’s our sweet spot everyday before bed."
5. Encourage Interactive Play
Even though each of her kids is unique, Bethany finds that some of the most special moments occur when her two older sons play together, influencing and inspiring each other.
"I’ve started seeing their imaginations spark and grow when they play with each other. My 4-year-old encourages my 3-year-old to tag along and develop his own style of play based off of his big brother. I love that they bounce ideas off of one another and grow with each other."
The best part about nurturing these moments of imagination? They don't just impact kids; they also give parents an opportunity to re-evaluate their priorities, which Bethany values above all else.
"These moments make me forget about the worries and frustrations I have outside of my family and allow me to focus on what’s really important, which is them and their happiness. I feel like I have a privilege to be part of it — their happiness is my happiness."
This post is sponsored by DairyPure.
Photographer: Winnie Au; Prop Stylist: Kristine Trevino; HMU Artist: Brett Jackson; Art Director: Julie Vaccaro; Producer: Kat Fry; Video Producer: Lauren Tegtmeyer; Editor: Suzanne McKenzie