How to Bring the Power of Open-Ended Play into Your Parenting

There has been much research done that proves open-ended play does wonders for kids intellectual and emotional development.

As Chris Vaughan, author of the book, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Shapes the Soul, says in Episode 33, “We want our kids to be successful. We want our kids to be happy. The way to have both is through play.”

However, as parents, are we focusing on creating open-ended play environments for our kids development and forgetting to bring open-ended play to our own development?

What if we were to model for our children? What would it be like to bring open-ended play into our relationship with ourselves as parents? 

Why? Because if we can learn to “play” with who we are, we don’t get stuck in a box or bring the pressure of seriousness into our lives. Essentially, we are more free. Isn’t that also what we want for our children – to know they have the freedom to be who they want to be?

As Soul Path Parenting Host, Amy Breeze Cooper says in TAKE 5 for Passions: The Window to Your Soul’s Purpose, “We are all a product of this prevailing culture which emphasizes achievement over joy. Let’s break the cycle for our kids. So go forth, support your kids doing the things they love, just for the pure love of it.” 

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As an Applied Existential Psychotherapist, I relate to play as a core principle of existentialism, the goal of which is to experience freedom. In her article in the International Journal of Psychotherapy, Betty Cannon, creator of Applied Existential Psychotherapy, says:

“The spirit of play allows us to embrace the givens of our existence without being swallowed up by them. It gives us the space in which to recognize our freedom. The spirit of play is not so much a way of thinking as a way of experiencing. It is a lived encounter with the lightness of being. T

“This doesn’t mean that we escape from painful emotions or life situations, but that we approach them with a sense of agency – with the capacity to see possibilities and engage in opportunities. By moving from the spirit of seriousness to the spirit of play, we come to live more creative spontaneous lives. In a contemporary world characterized by a staggering amount of change and uncertainty, the spirit of play may help us to meet such changes with curiosity and openness rather than terror and overwhelm.”

What does open-ended play look like when it comes to who we are as parents? Imagine a part of you that you don’t particularly like, that shows up with your kids frequently. Maybe it is your impatient side. What would happen if you brought the spirit of play to your impatient side? What if developing a relationship to your impatient side was open-ended play because there is no win/loss, there is no “goal,” there is no finishing the puzzle. Your impatient side will always be there. What if the idea is to dance and play with it for the rest of your life?

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To bring the spirit of play try this:

  1. Play with the idea of being a journalist and “interview” this part of you. If you want to up the level of play, get your kid involved! Have your kid put on their “journalist” or “detective” gear and ask you questions that either you or they invent. These could be questions like:
  • What’s your name? (see number 2 for suggestions)
  • Where did you come from?
  • When do you come out?
  • What are the things you like?
  • What are the things you don’t like?
  • What do you need?
  • What do you want your friends to do when you are like this?   
  1. Create a character for this part of you – it could be something from a movie or cartoon. For example, the impatient part of me reminds me of Ren from the cartoon The Ren & Stimpy Show. Ren is a super uptight little chihuahua who, when he gets impatient about something, has these huge bulging eyes with red veins popping out of them and his whole body is wired and tense. This is definitely me when I am impatient.
  1. Next time the impatient part of you comes out, play with being the character (according to existentialism, all parts of us are made up anyway; so, playing a character is actually closer to what is really going on). For example, your kid is taking their time getting their shoes on to get out the door and instead of pretending you’re not impatient, turn up the volume! You could say, “Oh no! Ren is coming out! My eyes are bulging, my veins are popping out!” Maybe you even start barking like a chihuahua! 

See how the energy shifts. Most of the time when I do this with my kid it ranges from us cracking up to a small shift into being light vs. serious. It may also do wonders for your own mood. You may find yourself more relaxed and less stressed.

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What is critical here is that your child is seeing you play with the parts of your identity, not trying to hide them or be ashamed of them or let them run the show. This will be huge as they begin exploring who they believe they are and developing a relationship to the parts of themselves they don’t like or are ashamed of. 

Moreover, the freedom for children to explore all parts themselves in a shame-free, playful environment will allow their true passion and creativity to shine. The parts they are trying to hide because they feel the world might not accept them could be the key to figuring out what their true gifts are. 

For example, that “impatient” part of you that they may see in themselves, if given space and freedom, could lead to a child who discovers their passion for order and who loves to create more efficient ways of doing things. That “spacey” part of you that can create chaos is an essential part of an artist/designer and, if given freedom and space, could lead to a child who discovers their passion for thinking outside the box and loves to embrace chaos as fuel for their creativity.

Related Episodes:

33: Could Playing Be As Important As School? — Christopher Vaughan, Co-Author, Play

Take 5 for Passions: The Window to Your Soul’s Purpose

Shannon is a therapist, former school teacher, and mom. She is the co-author of the book "Sweet Spot: Leveraging Your Talents in Leadership and Life" Currently, Shannon writes about the areas that align with areas that she is passionate about...letting go of the energetic ties that keep us down, personal evolution, and true self-expression.

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