Tips for Encouraging Creative Play

I was nervous about 4 nights in a tent, but it was worth it! It was worth every thunderstormy, rainy moment, and worth every single bug bite!

The friends we camped with have the gift of creativity. Their kids drew our kids right into their world in the woods. They played!

Play. As a play therapist, I value play through many different lenses. I value play when we adults enter into our children’s world through child-led play. I value play when we adults plan fun and playful activities for our children, or turn mundane tasks into playful ones. But my very favourite moments of play are watching children deepen their curiosity, expand their creativity, and connect with the good things in life through play: connecting with friends, moments of solitude, connecting with nature, creating, imagining, learning, gaining mastery.

First, two of the kids made a boat for my 4-year-old daughter. They asked for a string to tie to the boat so that they could float it without losing it. My daughter said that she needed wind for her boat and my son started to blow. The boat was simple – a small piece of wood with a hole proudly cut with my 8-year-old’s new and prized pocket knife, a stick for a mast, and a leaf for a flag.

2019-07-09 16.29.44Photo by Tanya Hoover

As the days progressed, the kids kept building boats and they got increasingly complex. The wood got larger. They sawed the wood off a fallen tree by themselves.

2019-07-10 16.29.55Photo by Tanya Hoover

They tested the wood in the water to make sure it floated before they went to the work of building the boat. The oldest of our friends’ children, a 10-year-old, braided grass for a rope and wrapped grass around two sticks in a t-shape to make an anchor. She wedged it into a crack in the wood of the boat with two rocks. They put bark on top for life boats, pine cones were people, and rocks were cargo. They floated the boats. They created storms in the water by waving a paddle back and forth to make waves. They played!

2019-07-10 18.42.43 copyPhoto by Tanya Hoover

Our friends’ 10-year-old independently paddled the short distance across the calm lake with our 4-year-old, in a child-sized kayak, their two life-jacket clad bodies tucked up together. We watched from the side, ready to paddle out in the canoe if they needed us. They didn’t. They got out of the kayak at the beach across the lake, danced and ran together on the sand, and paddled back. Then they did it again. And again. The feelings of freedom and competence shone on their faces!

This was our experience, our moment, our gift on the lake in the woods!

Play can happen anywhere. I have always found that kids use what they have. Our toys may be elaborate, they may be simple. To create the environment for creative play, here are a few tips.

  1. Spend time in places that allow for freedom and creativity. A little patch of woods can create hours of exploration and creativity. Let your kids know the boundaries, then let them explore freely within that. Parks and playgrounds are fun, too. The key is spaces that allow for exploration and a level of freedom within a safe setting. A level of risk (e.g. climbing a tree where there is the possibility of falling) has been shown to be healthy and necessary for children to learn their own limits and abilities.
  2. Provide toys or items that provide opportunities for open-ended play. A great example is a set of natural, wooden blocks. It can become anything and be used in any way. This will provide many, many more hours of play than a plastic replica of the Paw Patrol Lookout Tower, for example. (Disclaimer: We have both natural blocks and the Paw Patrol Lookout Tower in our house! The blocks have gotten MANY more hours of play!) Other examples include having a wide variety of play people (be sure to include a wide variety of gender representations, ages, and skin tones), a doll house that has gender-neutral colours, magnet blocks, lego, matchbox cars, toy kitchens and food, dress up clothes. Dolls are fabulous, but again, be sure to include a variety of gender representations and skin tones. And art supplies! Paper, markers, glue, pom-poms, scissors, paint…
  3. Create spaces in your house and yard that are made for play. These should be areas where play is welcomed and messes are okay. Flowers may get broken off by a ball, but that’s okay. Play is welcome.
  4. Take time for child-led play. When parents/caregivers spend just 15 minutes per day engaged in child-led play with their children, there is an increase in positive connection, and a decrease in some behaviour challenges. Child led play is very simple, but yet it tends to be hard for us as adults to participate in. Child-led play simply means that the child chooses what to play, and they lead the play. As adults, we follow their lead, reflect on what we see happening, and reflect on how characters are feeling. Stay tuned for an upcoming full post on child-led play!
  5. Make sure your life is not too scheduled. Kids need room to be active or relaxed at their own pace, without the structure of school or structured extra-curricular activities. When possible, set up your life so that you are not rushing your children away from healthy free play into structured activities. This is a balance that each family finds for themselves, based on the needs of the family members. When my son was young, we found that just one planned activity per day was enough for him. If we spent time playing at a friends’ house in the morning, he needed down time at home in the afternoon. If we did not honour this need, he had more meltdowns. By this year, in Grade 2, he thrived having music class one evening as well as two evenings of outdoor soccer. There is no formula for how many extra-curricular activities to do: pay attention to your particular children’s and family’s needs.
  6. Notice what your kids are playing and ask about it. It’s their world, and they will love to tell you about it. Ask, listen, and honour their excitement.
  7. When you respond to your children’s play or ideas, focus on feelings (e.g. “Those two magnet blocks aren’t sticking together. I see that you are frustrated!”), focus on effort, intention and interests. I love the concept called “growth mindset”, which is all about focusing on efforts and intentions. This helps children learn from things that don’t go the way they wished they would, and it encourages ongoing growth and brain development. This in turn helps them develop resilience in the face of life’s challenges. has some fabulous posters, resources and printables on a growth mindset.
  8. Notice your own level of involvement. When you plan activities for your children, the activity is directed or adult-led. When the child chooses the activity, it is non-directed or child-led. Seek a balance of directed and non-directed activities – both are valuable in different times and settings. Our work as adults is to notice our own level of involvement and how different levels of involvement have different purposes. When groups of kids are playing, sometimes they need an adult’s help to plan an organized activity in order to be able to play together, such as an adult initiating and playing along in a soccer game. Sometimes, children choose their own play, but they need an adult quite actively involved to help navigate ideas and opinions, and to help children value each other’s ideas, feelings and needs. Sometimes, they play independently and then our role as adults is to step back and let children be independent. With mindfulness, take time to notice your child’s play in a given moment, and what level of involvement they need from you at that particular time.
  9. Most importantly, value play! Play is your child’s way of exploring, learning, processing, releasing stress and gaining mastery.
  10. Our own play as adults looks different of course, but it is just as valuable. How do you play? Do you go out with friends? Do you canoe? Do you play a sport? Do you go to concerts? Do you curl up with a novel? Do you garden?

Please send me your thoughts, ideas and observations. I would love to hear from you!

Looking for an activity for your kids in the car as you set off on your summer trip? Thanks to for providing the free printable below!

Have some fun outdoors with nature as you practice spelling and reading this camping crossword puzzle. Be sure to check out for more printables and learning activities just like this.

screenshotcross word
Click on the link below to access the pdf of this camping crossword puzzle:


Click on the link below to access the pdf of the answers to this crossword puzzle: crossword_camping_answers

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