Invitations To Play

Play is the way most children learn best, so it’s obviously an important part of each day. But some days, play can go from fantastic! to what is going on around here?! in about five seconds flat and that’s when I know there needs to be some focused time to recalibrate our energy. So I invoke the simple invitation to play.

Invitations to play, or provocations, don’t have to be complex or messy or even a lot of materials. They can be as simple at the one shown above, just some crushed mint leaves and flower petals with jars and spoons. Basically, a provocation is a term used in the Reggio Emilia preschool model that is all about inquiry and curiosity. It’s all about expanding or encouraging thoughts, discussion, or creative thinking. It builds on a child’s interests or questions they already have been asking. In a classroom setting, it would probably be open-ended materials connected to what the children have been learning and talking about; so if plants are the hot topic, then there might be an activity with flowers and seeds and a magnifying glass, or some pictures of plants growing with some drawing materials set out in a special place where children can explore the medium on their own or in small groups.

At home, I like to set out invitations to play (as I call them) for my two little ones at times when I know things might get hairy otherwise, like before dinner. I have lots of manipulatives (mostly open-ended materials, usually for building creativity as well as fine-motor skills. Think mini blocks, Magna Tiles, or other building materials.) and a few wooden trays that I use; the trays only come out for these invitations so it can help to frame the activity and let them know that something special is about to happen. I leave them out until they are done, and that varies! Sometimes it can be five minutes and other times it’s an hour. It all depends. I’ll reuse the play invitations too, we might do the same or similar ones many times over a few weeks if the interest is there. It all depends on the materials, topic, engagement…and the kids ideas, of course!

These play invitations can be incredibly helpful on so many levels, including:

*Building independent play skills

*Encouraging creative thinking and conversation

*Increasing focus and attention

*Empowering children to find their own answers

*Recalibrating energy levels

*Deepening cognition and flexible thinking

Setting up an invitation to play in your home can be so easy while also bringing so much richness to your child’s day! Some tips:

*”Frame” the materials with a special tray, small rug or placemat, or whatever you have available and only use that when it’s time for this kind of focused playtime.

*It’s helpful if you have some materials that are kept out of the everyday rotation to pull out just when needed. I have some bins with all kinds of different manipulatives and interesting objects, but it doesn’t need to be limited to materials. Sensory objects (like play dough, sand, water, shaving cream, etc.) are fun, or simple art projects, like watercolor paints or pencils, can also be a special activity. Found objects, small parts, and recycled materials are also great! Leaves, grass, flowers, or other natural items found on a walk or in the yard can be sweet for building, making indoor fairy or gnome homes, or just exploring with a small magnifying glass and some scoops and bowls. Anything that isn’t used on the regular will spark some interest!

*Try a little each day, even if it just for five minutes at a time. Focus and attention will increase gradually for some kiddos, especially younger toddlers, and some days even five minutes is a huge win!

* Connecting the invitation to something you know your kiddo is interested in is always a help. Your kiddo noticed the leaves were falling? Great, bring some of them in and put on a tray with sticks and some string. Or with a glue stick and some cardboard. Whatever! I don’t always connect the invitation with something we’ve talked about or are interested in, but I know if I incorporate their interests in some way they will stay engaged longer.

*Try to let your kiddo explore without your help or ideas. The invitation to play isn’t like a party where you both RSVP, it’s mostly for them to check out something on their own without adult intervention or input.

*Though provocations are usually open-ended so that children can explore their creative sides, they don’t always have to be! Things like puzzles, weaving and lacing materials, and books have a specific use and purpose, but still give that focused, independent time. Many materials open themselves up to being a creative materials when a toddler or preschooler is left to their own devices.

Other simple ideas could be:

Fabric scraps (add some cardboard and a glue stick for even more fun!)

Small blocks

Different lengths and textures of yarn and a tweezer or tongs

Cards and envelopes

Buttons (these can be a choking hazard so use with supervision)

Flowers, leaves, and other nature items

Tea bags

Cotton balls and Cotton Swabs

Literally anything alongside a magnifying glass can be interesting!

Muffin tins (great for sorting when using with some of the above materials)

Whatever you have on hand that might be of interest!

What do you think you’ll use to invite your child to play?

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