This article is written in partnership with guest author, Chloe Varelidi.
When Covid takes a toll on playtime, let your kids build their own worlds.
Last week, as I was wrapping up my last Zoom call of the day, my partner came to our bedroom-turned-home-office, to tell me we were late and had to go. You see, our favorite artist was on tour and we had front row seats to see her at a big concert hall. A few minutes into her hit song “Into the unknown” the crowd went wild. Naturally, the singer was our four year old daughter and the crowd consisted of us and the up-and-coming artist that is our one year old. The concert hall was our living room, now taken over by a makeshift stage and a thousand plush toys or fans- as my daughter would be quick to correct you.
This kind of make-believe play is of course common in young children, pandemic or not. It even contributes to the development of what is called counterfactual reasoning: the ability to distinguish between what is happening in the world right now and what might possibly happen in the future. And child psychologists will tell you that pretend play is a superb tool for children to make sense of difficult situations, like the pandemic. “We’re all under stress at this time, and play is an important catalyst to relieve stress,” says educational psychologist Lauren McNamara. In other words getting our kids (and us) to play is more important than ever.
That said, with the demands of 2020 parenting, which involves caring for your children while holding up a job, and did I mention cleaning, cooking, and what looks like being your child’s teacher for 6 more months? Well you might agree that when you are in survivor mode, it’s tough to think about the importance of play.
I say this as a professional toy designer who thinks about play all day long. While you might think our house resembles a Mary Poppins set, the reality is that like everyone else we have been too physically and mentally exhausted to even find the energy to play. Instead as we sink into our work schedules with excruciating guilt, our children seem to have taken matters in their own hands. Their own play world has fully materialized across the different rooms of our house. There is the misty forest where the baby dinosaurs live, otherwise known as our bathroom. The candy house of the Kiki creatures who occasionally (don’t ask) live in my one year old’s mouth and our kitchen. An imaginary summer house located under our dinner table with views to a magical creek. Our days at home pass with some form or destruction and reconstruction of these imaginary spaces.
In my own work I have been studying the role of pretend play for a few years now. I started looking into this kind of play a few years back when working with children in refugee camps who didn’t have access to playgrounds. Even when using simple materials like cardboard and paint the act of constructing one’s own world was not only fun but also deeply empowering. Children would discover a newfound sense of agency as they played for hours in their make-shift playgrounds. In a way they found a sense of control despite the uncertainty of their new reality. Then the pandemic hit and children everywhere lost access to playgrounds, school yards and public spaces where they could freely play. I focused my practice in building a simple, durable and affordable playground alternative called follies: a toy that gets kids to create their own play space anywhere they want.
As we spend more and more time at home, eagerly awaiting for the time we will carelessly hit the playground again without having to keep a 6ft distance, we should perhaps lean into our children’s inherent ability to create their own play spaces. Without the pressure of us having to entertain their play just letting them build forts and mountains and unicorn catapults all they want.
It’s after all that freedom to play and the joy that comes with it that might just get us all through this time.
About the Guest Author:
Chloe Varelidi is a DC based mom of two and an award winning toy designer. She is the creator of follies, a life size toy that gets kids to create their own play space anywhere they want. Learn more about how to get follies here. Purchases also support the Homeless Children Playtime Project in Washington, DC. You can follow Chloe on her instagram account: @playfollies