Communicating with Kids about Play


I am currently serving as a Smart Play Ambassador with the Minnesota Children’s Museum and each month we explore various topics and share the educational learning opportunities at the museum as well as apply it to our own lives.  This month we are exploring the concept of communication. 

I remember last year in ECFE talking about how as parents do we sit back and let the kids determine what they play with in the ECFE classroom or do we initiate the play that our child does?  I remember it being a meaningful conversation for me because I felt like I did quite a bit of the initiating.  Neither approach was necessarily wrong or right, honestly I usually initated a different area or activity because all Stella wanted to do was play with their kitchen set and make me cupcakes.  And what was wrong with that?  I guess I felt this need to push her to try the sensory table, the finger paint, the new toys and play things not available at home.  I’m also guilty of this at the Minnesota Children’s museum, “Stella let’s go do an art project, let’s check this room out, etc.”  What does she want to do at the museum each and every time? She wants to shop in the grocery store and make me food at the Korean restaurant.  I was also unsure of how much I should be communicating with her during activities, do I just hang back, do I engage, do I encourage her to have conversations with other children?  I thought this month’s theme of communication was valuable in our life because I want to find a way to communciate with her when she is playing and not necessarily shift to new activities but have good “play conversations” and allow her to express her thoughts about play and interacting with other children.

I asked the Minnesota Children’s Museum staff a few questions about initiating conversations and communication during activities and here’s how they responded.

What are some good conversation starters for children to promote communication during play whether at home or at the museum?

  • “Tell me..” or “I wonder…” statements are a great way for parents to spark a conversation about what their child is doing and to encourage them to share out loud their thought process.
  •  Talking things out as they do them or immediately after helps children understand what is happening as a result of their choices, and even build confidence in their abilities. This works whether children are playing alone or with others.
  • “Tell me how you knew that puzzle piece would fit there.” OR “I wonder if there is something you can do so the sand will do what you would like it to do.”

Any advice for parents on how to restrain the “helicopter” tendency and find the right moments for communication during play?

  • Try not to “drill” your child during their play. “What are you going to do next?” “ Why did you pick that one?” That type of communication can take away from the pleasure of play for a child.
  • Instead, keep your communication to the child authentic. You truly have an interest and want to know what they are thinking, then the right words tend to come at the right times. If you say something and your child doesn’t respond, they are likely deep in thought and/or action, and that is a clear sign to ask again later….even just a few minutes later.
  • You can also just be sitting back and watching, and quite often you will find your child will initiate a conversation with you.

For those parents with children that are under 4 and are just learning the fundamentals of collaboration and starting conversation with new playmates, how/would you advise parents to encourage children to start conversation with other children?

  • Children under 4 are typically at a very different stage of play than children over 4. They are making the transition from very “me-focused” play, to noticing more about the people around them and wanting to engage with them in their play. Encouragement should come in the form of it being okay if they do and okay if they don’t.
  •  You could say, “You can go over to that girl and tell her your name if you want to.” Or just remind them that there are others around who might want to play. “I see many children who would probably like to play with you.” And just leave it up to them as to what their next step will be.

I often joke with Will (my husband) about “landing the helicopter” our code for backing-off and letting Stella just try whatever it is that she is doing.  As a parent I need to sometimes just take a step back and realize its ok if all she wants to do is make me imaginary cupcakes and cook in the Korean restaurant at the museum and appreciate the fact that she loves to cook just as much as I do.

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