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The Gifted Resource Center of New England


Play is the work of childhood, at least in countries where children do not have to help eek out an existence. Play involves many aspects of the young child’s existence. We can think about supervised play and free play as both being essential to a child’s development.

The most important ingredient for play though, is free time. Children need time off to develop play. That means time that is unscheduled, and occurs each week. It’s down time with no agenda, but lots of material to use and think about. During this time, electronics are not allowed.

Supervised Play

In supervised play, parents and other adults play with and teach the child directly and indirectly specific skills. Thus, parents might coach skills in throwing a baseball, or taking turns in a card game. Parents might supervise play in which children learn to do something that requires judgment, such as making cookies (judging the amount of ingredients and use of the oven, for example).

Supervised play is especially important for young gifted children who are well able to imagine doing things but do not yet have the skills or judgment to do them well or responsibly. For example, the young person might want to clone bacteria in the family kitchen. This is a terrible idea. Under supervision, the young person might learn cloning techniques in a certified lab, along with the mentoring that would teach the dangers of cloning in an unrestricted environment. The same with inventing things. Charlie almost caused a major catastrophe when he tried mixing household cleaners together. He was only six and really didn’t understand that cleaners are dangerous chemicals, not play things. Luckily he was discovered before he put the bleach in.

Play Activities That Require Supervision:

  • Science kits of all types
  • Inventing
  • Building stuff from plans found on the Internet
  • Mixing household chemicals
  • Activities with tools and stoves
  • Activities involving wild animals or plants
  • Activities involving pets
  • Activities with motors
  • Activities involving use of the Internet

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Free Play

Some free play may involve building things according to directions, like Legos and other building toys. With these toys, children put parts together into wholes and analyze wholes into parts, very important skills to learn. Even wooden blocks with no directions can provide skill development in perceptual and spatial skills, and fine motor coordination. For example, balancing blocks on top of other blocks takes skill and persistence. Even a set of dominoes, carefully placed one on top of another in groups can provide balancing, sequencing and building skills.

Other free play is more imaginative. It starts with the child’s use of an object to pretend something. In imaginative play, adults do not direct the action and may not even be involved. The child pretending to be a dancer, in her imagination, is on the stage, performing all the steps to her favorite dance. She is the star. Or she is pitching so well, she wins the game for the home team. She feels the mound under her feet and the cheers of the crowd. To adults looking on, she may not look like she is doing anything at all.

Free play also involves making things from found objects. The sticks in the back yard that become the fort, the paper towel rolls that become light sabers with a little paint and glitter, the play put on by the neighborhood kids one summer evening are all free play. Encouraging free play allows children to use their imagination and this builds inner resources. A child, who can entertain him or herself and friends and siblings too, will not be likely to develop behavior problems. Play builds social skills, and self- regulation of emotions. Play can be the foundation of good self-esteem, confidence, leadership ability and even good problem solving.

To enhance imaginative play, select toys that allow the child to take off and do something else. For example, a light saber is a good toy because the child can pretend he or she is playing Star Wars, or uses the saber as a wand for a wizard. A toy that only has the child push a button to have a light or sound is not generally a toy that utilizes imagination, unless the child is able to go beyond the “teaching” he or she learned from on the commercial for the toy.

  • Art supplies of all types
  • Odds and ends that encourage dress up and theater
  • Toys that allow the making of music
  • Toys that encourage thinking about science and nature
  • Math toys
  • Building toys, including wooden blocks and sets like Legos
  • Books that encourage learning new skills like origami or kite making
  • Microscope, telescope, binoculars, and books to go with them
  • Simple tools and wood to make things
  • A simple camera
  • Sewing supplies, and kits for crafts

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