Play is important for all kids, especially when it’s child-led (when the actions, discoveries and inventions feel like a child’s own). There’s even a whole range of types of play, including free, independent play where kids make up the rules and play guided by us adults. The good news is we don’t have to entertain our children all the time. The quality of the time we spend as play partners matters far more than the quantity. And kids need loads of independent play time. However, sometimes getting kids to play independently is easier said than done. Enter: play projects.
A play project revolves around a real-world theme. In summer 2021 at Tinkergarten, for example, we transformed our homes and outdoor classrooms into “campsites” as part of our camping play project. Leaders helped children and adults work together to add objects, adapt the setting and invent new ways to play in response to our camping theme.
This concept of project play is not new. “The Project Approach” is an established way of teaching in which teachers guide students through in-depth studies of real-world topics. Children’s museums also offer immersive experiences that invite pretend play around themes like the supermarket, the hospital or the construction site.
It’s easy to set up play projects in your own space. To get started, think of play projects in two phases: setting up the environment and negotiating the play.
Phase 1: Setting up the project
The play environment is both the physical setting and the objects, materials, themes and ideas related to the theme. You don’t need to create a museum-level immersive play experience. In fact, kids learn much more when you start simple and co-create the experience bit by bit, over time.
In another summer Tinkergarten theme, kids immersed themselves in all things outer space for our Space Camp week. Outer space is captivating for kids and adults alike, making it a perfect play project to stoke the imagination and get kids hooked on science.
To kick off an outer space play project at home, gather up a few household objects, such as a bed sheet and cardboard boxes. Head outdoors (an ideal setting for learning), look up at the sky and wonder aloud: “What do you think it would be like to go to outer space? Do you think we could use these materials to pretend that we are going on a trip to the moon or another planet?” Wonder together how you would get there. What would you need to pack? What would you see and do when you arrived? If kids hear this invitation and run with it, let the play roll and follow their lead. If kids lull or shift interest, all is not lost—if the project is “sticky,” they’ll come back to it.
Phase 2: Negotiating the play
Once a project takes hold, collaborate with kids to play, and develop the environment over time. Educators in the Project Approach think of this as “negotiating the curriculum.” It’s like a game of catch. We toss out a new material, idea or question and then we let kids decide how they want to respond. As we play, we can volley back and forth, always following their lead. This give-and-take approach gives us a supportive way to enrich play while keeping kids in charge, and it helps us and our kids develop responsive relationships.
What does negotiating the play look like? Here’s how the back-and-forth could work for outer space project play:
Wonder and make. Talk to kids about what else you could make for your trip to outer space. Then, work together to use open-ended objects (e.g., nature objects, recyclables, blocks, paper, cloth, tape, twine, etc.) to create new props. Cardboard boxes can become rocket ships or rovers. Nature objects, recycled containers and small objects like buttons or bottle tops can become buttons and dials on their space vehicle. Rocks and mud can be arranged to create a landing spot on the moon. Chalk, paint or shaving cream can transform a draped bed sheet into a starry night sky.
Read and learn about space. Visit the library and wonder if there are books about outer space to read. One of our favorites is “My Rainy Day Rocket Ship” by Markette Sheppard. Read books together to learn the stories of constellations throughout history and across cultures. The Mars Perseverance Rover Interactive site has photos and video taken on Mars as well as a 3D view of the rover and rocket from the 2020 mission.
Discover the night sky. Take kids on a nighttime walk to behold the moon and stars. If a nighttime walk interferes with your child’s bedtime, look at constellations on apps like SkyView, Star Tracker and Star Walk.
Plant an open-ended material. Place a few simple objects, like a magnifying glass, paintbrush or bucket, into the play area and see what kids do with it—maybe they become tools for excavating and collecting space rocks and other interesting specimens.
As the project persists, kids will iterate and invent with and without you. When young kids repeat play within the same theme, important neural connections are strengthened.
No matter how you begin, remember, it should start simple and grow just as you and your kids feel is right. There are no right answers—this is play, after all. The process of wondering, inventing, pretending and wondering some more drives the learning. Sharing in this process together connects us to our kids and helps kids learn how to create their own play projects, making their independent play forever richer and engaging.
How to start a play project:
Pick a Project. What do your kids find most exciting or interesting? Is it dinosaurs? Unicorns? Art? Cats? Superheroes? If you’re not sure that your child has a particular interest yet, try out one of the favorite themes below.
Set it up. What environment would inspire play that revolves around that theme? Is there a home, ship, or other space in which this play could unfold? How could you mark off a corner of the yard, park or living room that could be that space? What first few things do you need to get started? Keep it simple with plenty of room to add and invent.
Add a few props. What ordinary objects could become props in the play? Sticks, dirt, mud, etc.? Could boxes or recycled objects become helpful props with a little imagination, duct tape or string? What about sheets or blankets? Having objects on hand can help inspire you and your kids to think what you’d need to play cooking, unicorns or space.
Wonder. Talk together about what you could wear, build or make. Wonder together about what these characters have, do and need.
Play. Start to become the characters or people at the center of your project. So much pretending (and empathy) can come from this. Unicorns have horns, need to eat, have a safe place to sleep and hang out with all kinds of magical creatures.
Read and get more ideas. Read a book about unicorns, and you’ll have gobs of material to bring into your project.
Let it roll. Keep the project up and running, even if your child’s interest ebbs and flows. Then, when it’s clear they’ve moved on, break down the show, and try a new project.
More play project ideas:
- Cooking play (water, mud, nature treasures, spices, etc.)
- Cats or dogs (or any animal)
- Bird’s nest
- Deep forest
- Imaginary creatures (unicorns, fairies, ninjas, etc.)
- Pirate ship
- Treasure hunt (maps and buried treasure)
- Bakery shop or restaurant
- Construction site
- Art studio
- Rivers and waterways
Meghan Fitzgerald is Co-Founder and Chief Learning Officer of Tinkergarten. After 20+ years as an educator, curriculum developer and school leader in NY, MA and CA, Meghan has her dream gig—an entrepreneur/educator/mom who helps families everywhere, including hers, learn outside. When she is with her kids, Meghan is that unapologetic mom who plays along with them in mud, and dances in the pouring rain.