Project Play Experience - Nurturing A Child’s Interests
Young children are often excited to extend their play, developing focus through continued exploration and discovery. How can we nurture this desire? One way is knowing when and how to guide free play into project play mode.
I recognise a cluster of ‘related play’ and think of it like a focused ‘mini-project’ based on a child’s specific play interest. By extending and supporting a child’s interest in their free play activity and exploring an idea or interest a bit deeper in the form of a project, their play can shift into longer periods of motivated focused play, where they learn it is possible to discover even more.
A free play activity may be over and done with, named, dated, and retired to the wall or stored away. But what happens when they build on and continue to extend these activities? What if they keep projects accesssible for further exploration? When young kids realise they can dive deeper into their play- introducing them to various tools, techniques, resources, technology, it opens up many new exciting opportunities for learning through play.
Generating a tangible or digital ‘journal’ by collating creations and play experiences, means children can bring everything together in a digestible format. Play becomes more real and relevant, new connections are formed, they observe their own progress, creations are shared and their creative confidence grows. It’s about having something to talk about and continue to build on from - it’s taking play a little bit deeper where children still have control to lead the way in their exploration.
Creating To Actuate Play
Children have many interests, problems and all those never ending questions that can be guided into ‘action thinking’. They love to explore topics of interest through play. Children want to engage in more ‘doing’ stuff, ‘creating’ stuff, ‘action’ play.
This is not the work they have to do for school, but are things they want to explore. Hands-on fun projects that they can engage in after school, kindy and work hours. A three-year-old may need guidance, but a six-year-old is happy initiating and evolving a ‘play project’ on their own once they get the hang of it.
For children this is real work in the real world - play that has meaning and purpose.
As well as basic skills, many design thinking skills are involved - imaginative exploration, ideation, drawing, prototyping or build-to-think, creation, story-telling and active problem solving. Design thinking is an approach or set of methods and tools that also focuses on developing creative confidence. Children are inherently good at making use of the designer’s toolkit. When kids shift into ‘explore’, ‘make’ and ‘do’ mode, their creativity soars. Anything they ‘make’ will foster their imagination and give them belief in their creative skills. They feel more creative - especially when play using one’s imagination is central.
Creativity if practiced, can become a long term habit for children.
The Train Play Project
A simple example: My three-year-old has developed a keen interest in trains like many kids his age do. He always talks about various aspects of trains but often goes back to the obvious and easy play with his train-set. A little of my observation and guidance with new tools and resources to trigger exploring train related activities helps him progress further along his fascinating play journey. Some of his project play included the following:
Create/Modify/Design: While playing with his train set he built numerous versions and complained about the tracks not always meeting male to female, his solution was to ‘hack’ or ‘adjust’ the train-set track piece to have it work as ‘he’ wanted it to. He wanted to be the creator not let the train set dictate his play. I’m glad I was there to witness the much desired modification. With a little effort we changed the connector piece.
Research/Learn: He wanted to know if all trains look like his train-set, so I set him up to watch some videos of trains on YouTube to find out. He discovered in the process how trains work. What makes them move. The mechanics of the train workings fascinated him and opened up a while new area he could not experience with just his little train-set.
Role-Play/Imagination: With a cardboard box, as kids do - he designed a few controls and acted out a trip to the city as the driver with his passengers, with a train sounds song on repeat in the background. A child’s imagination is so powerful you can see it’s just like the real thing to them. Totally absorbed in play. He wouldn’t hop out unless the train sounds stopped, as if the box was actually moving. It took me a while to notice I had to stop the music so he could get out urgently for nature’s calling.
Observation/Experience: We went for a train ride across the city- absorbing every tiny detail - learning about train directions, tickets, maps, journey details. Utterly mesmerised with the entire experience, he spoke with the train conductor and waved out to the driver. A passenger even helped him step up onto the train when he paused noticing the gap between platform and train. He formed new connections during the experience and there were many things he observed that we take for granted.
Drawing/Mapping: After a train ride he was fresh with a new experience and excited to draw what he observed and experienced. He talked about what he discovered by drawing a visual explanation to communicate with me. He was drawing to think about all the parts of a train, what made the noise, where it may have came from and designed the train how he experienced it to be. When we initially set out for our trip, he wanted to know where and how far the train station was from our house, so we drew a map together and he modified the train map to include his observations of what we passed by.
Story-telling/Sharing: He was excited to tell his brother and friends about his train trip so he told me a ‘story’ which we documented about his experience so he could recall and share the events with others.
Design/Build/Problem-Solve: We had some timber offcuts which he was improvising with as a train and carriages. He asked how we could connect them like a train but keep them removable too. I gave him a box full of bits and pieces to sort through to find something that may work for it. A screw-eyelet and a blind-bracket he selected and tried out were great solutions. I assisted with some wheels and a few nails, but he found the parts from our build space and even painted it.
Project Book: Rather than let each piece of the clustered ‘play experience’ float around and get lost, we collected all his play work together in his very own simple little stapled paper book. Something tangible with contents he had created, experiences to talk about. He can pick it up and share with others, tell stories about the photo’s, he can modify his drawings, re-build his train, new experiences to add. His project book continues to inspire and motivate him to explore more through play. It is his own and he’s proud of what he’s done. Most importantly- the project is never complete.
It’s Not About How They Do It, But About Having Time To Do It
All of this ‘train project play’ was spread over a week or two. He focused on different aspects at his own pace and I was asked to help at times. If a parent has a certain viewpoint, there is always the other parent with a different viewpoint, or a sibling, the internet to research or even a teacher to ask. He even took his project book to share at kindy for ‘show and tell’ prompting the kids to all share their experiences together. My six year old often comes home with contributions from his friends during class.
These are play projects that resonate with kids because they select them. They control their learning experiences. When kids ‘do’ and ‘make’ they feel more creative, its hugely empowering to have results to be proud of.
Some projects are light and quick over in just an hour, others resonate deeply and kids may be more interested in continuing their exploration over days or weeks. Some need a little guidance others need no inturruption. It doesn’t matter how they do it, they just love creating tangible results, and always at their own pace in their own time.
We all want to see our children develop their own interests, motivation and passion in life. Young children often just need someone to notice when they want to dive deeper in play, a little guidance, but most of all - plenty of free time to develop their own play interests.