Three kinds of prompts to inspire children to play

When my kids complain that they’re bored, my instinct is often to rattle off a list of ideas for things they can do. Usually, the list is roundly rejected—even the activities that I know they love to do. Of course, the problem isn’t that there really is “nothing” to do—it’s that they aren’t feeling inspired to play.

At Active for Life, we’ve seen record traffic to our website from parents searching for activity ideas to keep kids active at home during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown—and indeed, we do offer many articles, resources, and activity ideas to get kids moving. Yet parent-led activities are only one way to play. Often, the activities that children find the most engaging are the ones they invent for themselves.

One way to inspire kids to play is to prompt rather than suggest.

It’s a tip used effectively by educators in Reggio Emilia preschools, which emphasize self-directed and experiential learning. In a post on the Passionately Curious Educators blog, Reggio kindergarten teacher Tracy Sims shared a very useful summary of three kinds of “prompts” she uses to inspire children to learn through play:

  • Direct prompts: Adult-led activities that guide or invite children to learn in specific ways.
  • Implied prompts: Adult sets up materials with a specific activity idea in mind, but children choose whether to do the intended activity or to use the materials in their own way.
  • Open exploration: Play materials are accessible to kids (on a shelf or table, or in a basket) but there is no direct or implied prompt of any kind.

Reggio educators call these prompts “provocations,” which Sims defines simply as invitations for learning.

She writes:

We have found that these definitions have helped us to think about the different provocations that we set out for our students to explore. We want to ensure that there is BALANCE – we don’t want too many of any of these types of provocations! If you have too many direct prompts the students may feel restricted and if you have too many open explorations going on you may find it challenging to support, foster and document all of the learning happening.”

Remember: less is more

One key takeaway when it comes to these invitations to play: Sims says she has learned in her experience that less is more. She recommends starting small and adding more materials or suggestions for play slowly, adjusting to the child’s pace. She also recommends against spending a lot of money on expensive new toys or other materials, and instead turning first to recycled materials, found objects and finding new ways to use the items you already have.

How to use prompts to get kids to be active at home

Reading Sims’ post got me thinking about the activities that have been most effective at engaging my kids during the long days of coronavirus lockdown. Like parents everywhere, I’ve found it challenging to juggle working from home while caring for my three children. Like Sims, I find it helpful to switch up making specific suggestions for things to do, with more open-ended ideas for play. Here are some of the prompts that have been effective at inspiring my kids to enjoy active play during the pandemic. Please share what has worked for you!

Direct prompts

  • Inviting the kids to come along on a walk around the neighbourhood is a great way to get them moving. Even when they start out grumpy, by the time we get a few minutes down the road, they’re racing each other down the street, leaping across ditches, and filling their pockets with the interesting objects and rocks they find.
  • A game of backyard badminton is always a hit with my middle daughter—and it’s a fun way for me to get active too.
  • Sometimes I invite my kids to play an active video game if they don’t want to go outside (the older two are currently loving the goofy boxing game Arms for the Nintendo Switch), or offer to put on a kids’ yoga video for my seven-year-old (she likes Cosmic Kids Yoga).
  • I showed my seven-year-old how she could set up empty juice bottles like bowling pins and use a small ball to knock them down, which sparked some fun “bowling” games.

Implied prompts

  • I pointed out some old tires and planks to my 10-year-old and noted that she could use them to create a balance beam. She spent the rest of the afternoon rolling tires around and trying out different ways to use the materials to create what we fondly call our “junkyard playground.” All three of the kids now play with it every day: climbing on the tires, balancing and jumping on the boards, and moving the pieces around whenever they like.
  • Inspired by my colleague Jim’s post about sock ball games, I suggested we try playing sock ball soccer. As soon as the kids learned to make the sock balls, however, they began inventing their own games. My seven-year-old found a box and drew a target, and declared that trick shots were worth double points, leading to all kinds of creative throws.

Related read:  How to create a “risky play” backyard playground


Open exploration

  • My middle daughter has started a collection of objects she finds outside and has arranged these carefully in a display in our backyard. It includes everything from fragments of china dishes she picked up on the lakeshore to pinecones, bottle caps, and interesting rocks picked up on the side of the road.
  • I set up a hammock in the backyard, thinking that it would be a good spot for the kids to read. In fact, they’re just as likely to use it as a giant swing.
  • We have a collection of balls, a jump rope, and other simple toys that are easily accessible for play, and I ordered and installed a ninja line obstacle course between two trees for my adventurous 10-year-old to swing on. Inside, I installed a dollar store mini basketball hoop with a small soft ball for the kids to play with, and we also have a growing collection of sock balls!

The next playtime prompt I plan to try is early childhood education professor Dawne Clark’s suggestion to use painter’s tape to create a hallway hopscotch path near my front door. I can pretty much guarantee that my kids will snatch the roll of tape from my hand and start inventing their own games—which is perfect.

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