Blog Archives

Ways to Encourage Free Play & Inspire Your Kid's Imagination



“Spontaneous play is so much fun for kids. It’s always great to let your kids try out their own ideas. They open up new possibilities and get to express their own special style.”

For some ideas to encourage free play, visit

Legos and Open-Ended Play


Legos and open-ended play, a note from Bob Dean, Executive Director of GRCM

At the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum, we concentrate on “open ended play”.  When I am giving someone a tour of the Museum, I always stop at our Lego table to explain what that means.  When Legos first came out, they were just a box of bricks in different sizes and colors.  A child could make a car, then tear it apart and make an airplane, then a castle, or a ship or whatever.  The outcomes were infinite – or completely open ended.    This is the kind of play which does the most for developing imagination, various thinking skills, and several other key developmental assets.

Then Lego started coming out with themed kits in which you followed specific directions to make a specific item.  One year, we bought my son a Millennium Falcon kit from the Legos Start Wars collection.  He spent Christmas afternoon making it, and now it still sits on his shelf, untouched, fifteen years later.

I am sure that there are some important skills which develop through the process of following directions and making a pre-determined outcome, but developing imagination is not one of them.  Apparently, I am not the only one who feels this way:

“Has Lego sold out?”  New York Times, Sunday December 23, 2012

By the way, my favorite story about our museum and our Lego table (which is just  loose bricks, fostering open ended play) was when a couple of parents tried to encourage their son to leave what he was working on and move on to something else. “Come on, we have Legos at home that we can play with.”  The little boy gave a nod to one of our staff facilitators playing with him and said, “yeah, but we don’t have her at home.”

Note: Lego does still sell the loose brick kits:  I just checked and they are all sold out on the web site, so maybe people have re-discovered the joy of open ended creative play.

Why is pretend play important?

Did you know that pretending is actually helping your kids learn?  Here’s an interesting article about the need for pretend play.


The Benefits…

Sometimes roughhousing gets a bad rap. Parents might feel that roughhousing between kids, or between a parent and a child just leaves the child too excited and hard to calm down. A recent book, The Art of Roughhousing” by Anthony T. DeBenedet and Lawrence J. Cohen,(Quirk Books; May 17, 2011) however, illustrates the many benefits of roughhousing. The authors claim “Play – especially active physical play, like roughhousing – makes kids smart, emotionally intelligent, lovable and likeable, ethical, physically fit, and joyful”.
Roughhousing builds resilience, helps cognitive development, builds social skills, teaches morality and keeps your children physically active. But, as you might imagine, the book begins with a disclaimer cautioning all to use adult common sense when roughhousing to assure safety. Have fun, but keep it safe.

-Bob Dean, Executive Director, GRCM.

Tag, You're It.

An article in the current issue of The American Journal of Play discusses the possible evolutionary reasons of why play behavior developed in humans and in just about every mammal. Early humans who knew how to cooperate with others, how to control their impulses, and how to communicate effectively had a better chance of surviving than those without such skills. Play develops these abilities. Monkeys and rats who were deprived of play at a young age grow up without adequate social skills and are prone to misread normal interactions with others in their species, as aggressive acts.
An interesting finding was when adults were asked to remember back when they played tag, did they prefer being chased, or being the chaser? Most people prefer being chased to being the person who is “it”. Apparently it was pretty important for our ancestors to know how to run away from wild animals.
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Play is Not Just for Children

The most recent issue of The American Journal of Play (Vol. 3, Number 3, Winter 2011) has a couple of articles about the value of play to adults. The first is an interview with Ruth Codier Resch, a psychoanalyst who suffered a stroke that robbed her of her ability to speak. Ruth regained her ability to speak, went back to work, and developed a whole new outlook on life through her rehabilitation using play. This illustrates how remarkably changeable the brain can be and how play can lead the way in making this change. Play, effectively, helped her brain develop new pathways to express herself and opened her up to understand how the non-verbal side of the brain communicates.

Playing with Ideas: The Affective Dynamics of Creative Play by Pat Power, explores the value of play in adulthood by studying the neurology, emotion and cognition of play. The author suggest eight essential qualities of play: lighthearted, humorous, imaginative, open-minded, transformative, enigmatic, interactive, and dynamic. She concludes that play enhances our sense of quality of life and therefore “positively confers a plethora of long-term health benefits including a tendency to live a longer and happier life”.

Playing in the Mud – A great article on a great website, about the joys and value of playing in the mud. Did you know it can even help your immune system?

The New GRCM Play Blog

What is the GRCM Playblog?

This is the inauguration of a new website and a new blog for the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum. We hope it becomes a regular stop for you. Our objectives with this blog are many and varied, but in short, we want it to extend the mission of the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum beyond our doors and into yours.

In this blog we will pass along the latest research on play and the beneficial impact it has on cognitive, social emotional and physical development. We also plan to pass along practical ideas on how you can stimulate your children with open ended, child directed play, at home, on vacation, virtually anywhere. Finally, we also hope to share with you the daily joy of being at the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum by posting pictures and telling stories. This is a truly magical place doing an important job and we don’t want to keep it to ourselves. We welcome your comments and ideas. Enjoy.

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