The other day I watched my 2-year-old turn into a big business tycoon. She pulled a rolling chair up to a desk, picked up an imaginary cell phone and shouted nonsense (very serious nonsense) at an imaginary peon on the other end of the phone. When she was done, she hung up the phone, put it in her pocket and slammed her hands down on the desk with a little baby curse word.

An hour before that, she was a kitty crawling around my living room floor on all fours, licking her paw and cleaning her face with it. Then she was a mommy, putting babies to bed and draping them with blankets and lullabies. And when we had friends over that evening, she shouted “Zombie!” and chased them around the living room, groaning and demanding “brains!”

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Sometimes I watch her playing pretend, coloring by herself or building towers out of blocks, and I feel like a terrible parent. The television tells me “your baby can read by age 2!” and “quick, teach your baby a second language before she’s too old to learn anything!” My friends enroll their children in sports and music programs as early as possible and fill their days with structured activities. I thought that was what good parents did, though somehow it felt wrong. I looked at the way my daughter played, and it reminded me of all the things I do as a writer, an avid role player and a hobbyist.

Turns out my instincts were about on target. What my daughter does when I’m not hassling her into more structured activities is called “free play,” and developmental psychologists have been studying its positive effects on children for decades. Not long ago, a friend of mine who works with children as a therapist pointed me to an article in Scientific American that talks about the importance of free play for children. The piece discussed some possible difficulties for children who aren’t given enough free time to play and some of the developmental advantages of child-led play.

The hobbyist in me read what they called “free play” and immediately thought of roleplaying or creative storytelling. When you get right down to it, the difference between crawling around on all fours like a cat and dressing up in armor to spend an afternoon beating friends with boffers is pretty minimal. But much to my disappointment, the article warned that such games are actually a form of structured play that can undermine the whole point of free play.

So what’s a gaming mother to do when she sees an opportunity to both play with her child and introduce her to a pastime she loves dearly? Ditch the rules. Structure limits the creative process; instead, parents should inspire creative thinking without controlling it or setting limits. Of course, it’s slightly more complicated than that …

With Toddlers

Play is an important part of the development of language. As soon as a little tyke has started to develop words, there’s no reason parents can’t participate in their child’s play. Children are naturally interested in naming objects and concepts in order to communicate their thoughts and ideas with parents, and so it is with early free play – your only role may be defining real-world things in their pretend context. But there are plenty of ways you can encourage free play without impinging on your child’s creativity.

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Grown-up Life is Play: Present a toddler with a series of props from day to day life: a pan, a broom, a shovel, the TV remote, etc. Don’t just select items for their familiarity – also choose items with bright colors. Then you can sit back and wait for your toddler to select an item to play with. You can talk about its color or words and numbers that might appear on the item, but most of all, give in to the instinct to play-act. Pantomiming actions you would perform with the object encourages your toddler to do the same. Then, for fun, experiment with using the item in ways it isn’t meant to be used. Can a broom become a guitar? Can a banana be a phone to call the grandparents with? When you find your toddler playing with an item in an unexpected way, you can encourage him/her and play along.

Set the Stage for Play: For a hobbyist who is likely to have any number of fantasy elements around his/her home, this set up is similar to the one above only with objects a bit less useful in day-to-day life. Provide a toddler with stuffed dragons, sturdy plastic ray guns or maybe a small foam sword. This time, in addition to going over the names, colors and characteristics of the items presented, you can encourage your child to really step outside of reality and play pretend. A parent should let them wield that foam sword or the ray gun and – so long as they stay gentle – even let them play fight with it. (If you’re concerned about exposing your child to weapons, there is a growing body of studies that suggest roughhousing and pretend fighting are ways children naturally relieve stress and are a part of the process of growing.)

Chase Fairies (or Bigfoot): There is no denying that getting a toddler up and moving is not only good for his/her growth and health, but it can lead to much needed naps. Organizations like The National Organization for Play recommend trips to the great outdoors whenever possible. Why not use a trip outside as a chance to expand creativity and flex those free-play muscles? Sometimes simply suggesting to a child that there are fairies to be seen (or gnomes, trolls, aliens or whatever kind of disappearing creature appeals to the child) is enough to get them into the game. Fairy hunts take playing pretend and add exploration and exercise as parent and child chase their quarry all over the neighborhood. Just remember to keep the game going; whenever your child thinks he’s found the spot where the critter rests, you should point somewhere else and say, “wait, is that it over there? Do you see it?” When the child is old enough, take them home and ask them to draw pictures of the creature they “saw.” This works wonderfully with a group of children at a birthday party or a scouting event.

Preschoolers and Up

Once your child has a better grasp of language, you can focus on narrative exploration as a way to foster creative problem solving and encourage social interaction in groups. Taking turns and working together to solve problems, all while interacting face to face with other children, teaches them social cues and sharing.

Put the Kid in the Director’s Chair: Story time at night is rife with opportunities for child-guided activities. As you tell your child a story, include them in it. You can tailor it by having him/her name the main character, or perhaps be the main character. Fill the story with choices for the main character to make and let the child make these decisions. Let the child guide the story and be prepared for a wild ride.

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Traditional Gaming at the Table: There are actually a fair number of pen-and-paper roleplaying games designed specifically for young children, and a quick internet search will give you many to choose from. Keep in mind, the focus here should still be in the aspects of free play that will help the child. This means light (or nonexistent) rules and a wide-open setting with plenty of room for imagination. If you can swing it, a game for a group of similar-aged children lets them socialize and reap the full benefits of free play.

At the end of the day, I may always worry that I’m not spending enough time with my daughter. But by sharing my loves with her in a constructive but non-controlling way, at least I don’t feel like the time we’ve spent together is wasted, even when we’re just playing for its own sake.

Filamena Young is a full time mother, writer, and gamer. When she isn’t chasing toddlers she’s writing gaming material and “doing research” with the latest roleplaying titles. Read more at www.filamena.com.

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