Does your play-hungry child have access to a play-full space?

Early childhood play-patterns

Supporting children’s urges and play-patterns

Our homes can be play-havens for tamariki if we understand and allow for their innate play urges. Play is special enough, but when we realise that there are patterns in how all tamariki play, we can see even more magic in their self-chosen activities. What we see goes beyond the object that the child uses, and into how they are using it. We start to see what they are doing with what they have around them.

It becomes really fascinating when we see the same urge playing out with different materials, in different environments, and even with non-play items. To a child with a positioning urge, the peas on their plate are just as enticing to line up as their car collection, or the shells at the beach. Or a child who has an urge for deconstruction will love knocking down block towers, but also may dismantle appliances, or pull petals from daisies one at a time.

If we look at just the objects: peas, cars, and shells, or blocks, gadgets and daisies, they seem unrelated. It is how the child engages with each— the play urge— that links all of these together. Knowing the urges helps us recognise them when we see them, and understand more about how a child is exploring their world. We get a clearer window into the child, and into play itself.

The term play urges was coined by Kimberley Crisp, here in Aotearoa. Schema is a related term, but what urges gives us is an appreciation for the fact that the play urges come from deep within the child. They are universal, innate, and intense. They are all about action, and remind us what true play is. It is the child who transforms, transports, encloses, runs, deconstructs and positions. With all the electronic toys on the market, we tend to need this reminder: the child, not the toy, should be in charge of their play!

We can prepare our home environment with play urges in mind, asking ourselves questions like:

  • What can my child construct with here?
  • What can they use to envelop their body, or their toys?
  • Are there things they can gather and distribute?
  • Are there appropriate objects and spaces for throwing, and spaces for climbing and jumping?
  • Are our playthings open-ended enough that creating families is possible with multiple objects, and in more than one way?

Toys that are too prescriptive limit how tamariki can use them, whereas open-ended objects such as loose parts open up possibilities for multiple urges. Think how a basket of beanbags could be used for throwing, carting around (transporting), lining up, and also tucking up in bed to satisfy both the family and enveloping (wrapping) play urge. If we couple the loose objects with urge satisfiers such as buckets, trolleys or prams with wheels, blankets, and bags that allow for the various actions to be carried out, it’s a play-full space, for a play-hungry child.

We honour play when we prepare our space for it, but we can also access a perfect, non-prep setting that naturally caters for the play urges: nature. Papatūānuku provides the space, pace and treasures that are just calling out for urge play

Another gift that understanding play urges gives us is a change in how we view certain behaviours. If we realise that a child who throws things over fences or into crowds is actually expressing a trajectory urge, we respond to the behaviour more gently. We can offer yes options for throwing, rather than just reprimands. Or perhaps our child comes home from their centre with pockets stuffed with little items that don’t belong to them. This is not anything about the child’s character, but evidence of a deep urge to gather or collect.  

We often think of play urges as being about children, but they aren’t age dependent. We have them too, perhaps seen in a playful form such as skipping stones at the river, collecting shells at the beach, or spinning coins or counters we find lying about. But they could also be in something more mundane such as when we peg washing a very particular way, or when we feel the need to keep ‘adding to cart’ until we have an entire collection of something when one would probably suffice. Just like our children we maybe couldn’t explain why we’re doing these things. We just have an URGE!

Childcare that begins and ends with loving care