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  • Writer's pictureAmarinda Keys

Invitations to Play

The Children’s Museum, once completed, will be filled with exhibits that are designed in a way that invites children to play, without being prescriptive about what that play should look like. For example, our Farmers Market Exhibit will be filled with make-believe produce, a cash register, a scale, and a stand that you can walk inside. A child could gather food together and bring it somewhere for a picnic, practice exchanging money for goods at the cash register, sort the food by color, or size, or maybe even try and juggle with a handful of fake plumbs! There is no right or wrong way to play. But how do you get a child engaged? You have to make the materials intriguing! Materials have to invite the child to play.

While engaging setups are a critical theme within exhibit design, invitations to play are also key for putting together engaging programs. But you don’t have to be at the children's museum- you can set up your own simple invitation to play right at home! And it’s so easy to set up.

Invitations to play is a term often seen in the child-education sphere, especially in the Reggio Emilia pedagogy. This refers to opportunities for open-ended play, where the child is leading their own play and they get to decide what to do without restrictions imposed by adults. Studies show that this type of open-ended play is declining in our culture, but it is so critical for healthy development.

Open-ended play supports:

  • critical thinking skills

  • imagination and creativity

  • independence and confidence

  • fine motor skills

  • and more!

Open-ended play like this also leads to longer engagement- meaning more time for you to finish that load of laundry, call your friends back or catch the end of your favorite podcast. A child experiencing periods of uninterrupted open-ended playtime has the opportunity to work through feelings and try out ideas without the interference of adults.

So, how do you set this up in your own home? The key is gathering inviting materials together, laying everything out so it’s easy to see and easy to access, and letting your child explore. Don’t worry, they will know what to do! Here are some of our favorite setups:

Clay Play Set up playdough with a variety of add-ins. Some favorites include mini figurines, gems, rocks, cotton swabs, and rolling pins or wooden dowels.

Sensory Bin Fill a bin with some kind of sensory material like pebbles, rice, corn, or sand. Then add little figurines, natural materials, spoons, and mini shovels- anything you have works!

Squeaky Clean Fill a tub outside with water and consider adding a squirt of gentle soap to make bubbles. Include spoons, an old toothbrush, and some rags. Gather up plastic or metal toys, like trucks or figurines. Maybe toss them in the dirt first to get them in extra need of a bath!

Loose Parts Play Gather together a collection of objects for children to explore. You could go with a theme like nature with rocks, sticks, bark, pine cones clay. Try screws, bolts, washer, and string. Or maybe blocks, cars, and popsicle sticks.

Ice Block This is a great option for those long hot summer days! Freeze a handful of plastic toys in ice cube trays and/or a collection of plastic containers. For a little extra fun, you can add food coloring. Once frozen pop them out of the mold and present them along with a pipette, spoons, cups of warm water, and salt (which helps ice to melt faster). You could even include baking soda and vinegar if you’re ok with the mess!

Have you ever tried setting up a simple open-ended invitation to play? Let us know how it went!

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