Play For All: 20 Ways To Engage With Your Child When You Don’t Always Have The Time, Money, Or Space

by Melissa, co-founder of Melissa & Doug. 

I wanted to share an incredible experience I had recently speaking about the “play deficit crisis” at Boscov’s, a department store in Milford, Connecticut. Over the past few years, I had met often with various groups to discuss our Take Back Childhood mission, but amazingly never engaged with the type of audience I was speaking to that day.

Up until then, my audiences had either been retailers, Melissa & Doug employees, or a specific group of individuals listening to me as the keynote speaker at their event. So the Boscov’s audience represented the first organic, public group receiving my message about child-led play, its enormous benefits, and the obstacles standing in the way of that kind of play (namely screen time, overscheduling, and performance-focused parents and schools).

When I finished speaking that afternoon, the questions that followed differed from those of my generally more affluent audiences of the past. These were urgent, hard-hitting and sobering questions from those without the resources to change their current life dynamics.

“We get it,” many sadly lamented, “but your solutions are impossible to implement in our world. We cannot send our kids outside to play because of violence in our neighborhoods and parks. We cannot control media use in our homes because we work long hours and depend on others or sometimes no babysitter at all to watch our kids. In fact, electronics often become our babysitters out of necessity. We are desperate for support and answers because we know what we are currently doing is hurting our children — but we don’t have the money, time or physical space to do what you are suggesting we do.”

Understanding The Problem And Making A Promise

These heartfelt responses rendered me speechless. The affluent members of audiences I had always spoken to were able to embrace the idea of being “imagination coaches,” sending their children outside to play, and creating enticing “inspiration baskets” to foster creativity and ignite imagination. But now I could see that for hard-working parents often struggling to provide for their families and make ends meet, this was a bigger leap.

I heard such guilt that afternoon over the lack of time these parents had to spend with their children—sometimes only a few hours a week with their heavy work schedules. They implored me for guidance on exactly how to best connect with their children during those brief periods together. Others pleaded for me to tell them how to convince their children to put down their technology or abandon their video games when they had zero willingness to do so.

I felt woefully ill-equipped to offer compelling answers to all their questions. I realize there are massive systemic issues in our society around wages, childcare, housing, and crime that have to be factored in as we strive for a world where every child has ample opportunities for free play. However, I left that meeting vowing I would answer this question: “How can I engage with my children and get them to put down their technology, with limited time, money, and space?”

I wanted to give parents and caregivers a go-to list of concrete ideas. Following are 20 of my favorite ideas on how to engage with your children in a way that inspires their imaginations and shows them the possibilities of screen-free fun!

20 Screen-Free Ways To Play & Connect With Kids

1. Reading

If your children will not read books to themselves, offer to read to them. Poetry, articles, books, or even old letters will do – especially if you dramatize the storytelling a bit and use different intonations and voices.

2. Storytelling

My children love hearing stories about my childhood and the childhood tales of their siblings or my friends. Truth be told, I long ran out of stories many years ago and sometimes retold stories I heard from others or even news stories. But hey, it’s a tradition that connects and bonds us.

3. Sing-Alongs

Every night for years my daughter and I would sing family favorites like Yellow Submarine, She’ll be Coming Round the Mountain, I’ve Been Working on the Railroad, This Land is Your Land, Oh Susannah, You are My Sunshine, and so many more. For an added bit of creativity, encourage kids to make up their own, personalized lyrics to familiar tunes.

4. Dance Parties

A few minutes of dancing is a great way to unwind, de-stress, and get a little exercise. My kids have enjoyed hearing the classics from my childhood and have become huger fans of Queen, Cat Stevens, and the Beatles. But sometimes we just turn the radio volume up and crank the tunes, rocking out to the beat!

5. Tongue Twisters

These are so much fun to recite, perfect, and then make up your own!

Family laughing together at home; Shutterstock ID 524508394; Purchase Order: -

6. Family Trivia

The kids love when I ask them trivia questions about the family (birthdays, middle names, favorite foods, favorite colors) or about sports, states, music, movies, etc. Give kids a chance to brainstorm a few questions to ask you as well! You’ll be surprised with what they come up with.

7. 20 Questions

This kept us busy for months! One person comes up with a person, place, or thing, and then the guesser asks yes and no questions trying to get the answer in as few questions as possible!

8. Pop Quiz

Challenge kids by giving them words to spell and math problems to solve.

9. Sketch Art

We play a game where we have to draw an object without looking and see which person does a better job! Or one person comes up with a theme, and both need to draw a creative scene using that theme. Or we place an object (a lamp, a clock, a bowl of fruit) in front of us and try to draw an exact replica of it!

Close up image of human hands painting something on the foreground ; Shutterstock ID 168539717; Purchase Order: -

10. Pencil & Paper Games

We love scratch paper games, such as Dots, Hangman and Tic-Tac-Toe! Sometimes we play for hours!Card Games
One deck of cards will be the best investment you will ever make. My favorite game of all time began in childhood and was taught to me by my grandmother— 500 Rummy. We also love to play Go Fish, Spit, War, Solitaire, Blackjack, and so many more.

11. Card Games

One deck of cards will be the best investment you will ever make. My favorite game of all time began in childhood and was taught to me by my grandmother— 500 Rummy. We also love to play Go Fish, Spit, War, Solitaire, Blackjack, and so many more.

12. Card Tricks

I spent innumerable hours learning how to shuffle cards and make a bridge, and also perform card tricks. There is no better way to teach mastery and performance skills to your children. Plus, you can always try to build a house of cards! These tasks are great for developing fine motor skills!

13. Joking Around

Telling and making up jokes helps kids develop a sense of humor and make connections. Knock-knock jokes were a favorite in our home for many years. Jokes and riddles often have simple structures and as kids try to make up their own they are developing important skills they will use for reading comprehension.

14. Paper Airplanes

We have derived no greater joy than making and racing paper airplanes! Challenge kids to get creative with their folds. Measuring how far each plane can go, making improvements for further flight, decorating planes with designs – there’s so much learning (and fun) that comes with such a seemingly simple activity!

Kid's hand taking playing plane paper in the park; Shutterstock ID 354168041; Purchase Order: -

15. Ball Games

We play catch indoors year round and keep a running tally of how many catches we can make without dropping the ball. We have made it to 10,000! Sometimes for an added challenge we do lefty or one-handed or one-foot catches. We will also play “basketball” where we throw the ball into trash cans, sinks, or any sort of baskets or containers.

16. Cat’s Cradle

Two long shoelaces tied together can provide a perfect string for cat’s cradle—a game great for fine motor skill development and one of the most engaging activities of all time!

17. Create a Dance or Handshake

Try coming up with a family dance or handshake with your child. It’s a great collaborative and creative project that also will become a favorite family tradition to break out now and then!

18. Stage a Play

Choose a simple fairy tale or movie and recreate it in a play! Make a program and tickets and put on a show!

19. Cook Together

Even helping prepare simple meals or snacks can be so much fun. Allow your child to help gather ingredients, help measure, mix, and clean up!

Family Cooking Kitchen Food Togetherness Concept; Shutterstock ID 343114325; Purchase Order: -

20. Clean-Up Time

One of my favorite activities as a child was actually to clean—wash dishes, dust, fold laundry and put it away, vacuum, clean windows with spray cleaner, dust the furniture and wash the car on warm days.

Injecting interactive activities into your everyday routine can be a challenge, but the benefits of playfully engaging with your child will last a lifetime! Enjoy!

Nest is a stockist of Melissa & Doug toys. With everything that Melissa & Doug create, they hope to encourage:

  • Free Play
  • Creativity
  • Imagination
  • Learning
  • Discovery

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