Every Day is Kids’ Day: The importance of summer play

Play is so much more than a part of the summer experience for kids. It’s a key component in childhood development, not to mention mental and physical health. (Thinkstock)

WASHINGTON This week on Every Day is Kids’ Day, we’re diving headfirst into play after all, it’s summer.

But play is so much more than a part of the summer experience for kids. It’s a key component in childhood development, not to mention mental and physical health.

“Kids need to play because that’s the best way they learn,” said Pat Rumbaugh, who is affectionately known throughout the D.C. area as “The Play Lady.”

“When children play, they discover things. They use their imagination, their creativity comes out, they learn to negotiate at a very young age when they play with other children when adults aren’t constantly supervising them and they’re just playing together.”

There’s no need for expensive toys and overplanned play dates. Here are a few of Rumbaugh’s best tips for play this summer.

‘Bored’ is a good thing

Getting complaints from the kids that they’re bored? Rumbaugh says that’s actually a good thing.

“When you’re bored, you have to reach inside yourself and think, ‘What do I want to do? What really would be fun?’” said Rumbaugh, author of “Let’s Play at the Playground.”

Reach for the basics

Empty boxes around the house? Gather them up and have the kids build something with other common items on hand, such as paper towel rolls, toilet paper rolls, markers and old sheets.

When children get to work on these materials with a little imagination, the possibilities are endless. What was previously trash can quickly transform into a rocket ship, a robot or even a fort.

“Let them just go to town,” Rumbaugh said.

Think free first

On nice days, it’s good to get outside and get a little fresh air at your local playground or nearby county park.

The Washington area has a plethora of free trails, nature centers, themed playgrounds and splash pads. You can find more information on your local parks and recreation website.

“Think of it as an adventure. Go with your children, but let them take the lead,” Rumbaugh said.

Toys to have on hand

Give the electronic toys a rest. Some of the best tools for summer are balls and sidewalk chalk.

“Every child should have a ball, and you know, it doesn’t have to be an expensive ball — you can buy something that’s not that much,” Rumbaugh said, adding that even old tennis balls work.

If your kids have never played hopscotch, show them how to make a board on the sidewalk. Also encourage free-drawing with the chalk.

“You could be 2 and you could have an hour of play with one piece of sidewalk chalk,” Rumbaugh added.

Have a backyard? Invest in a sprinkler or a small baby pool. If you have limited outdoor access or money is tight, get an empty milk jug, fill it up with water and bring a plastic bowl or pan outside. A few plastic cups will also add to the fun.

“If they’re really young children, they don’t know [the difference]. They’re just glad they get to play with water,” Rumbaugh said.  

As children get older and you don’t have to worry about them putting balloons in their mouth, water balloon fights are a blast.

Organize a neighborhood play day

Rumbaugh is known for organizing neighborhood play days in her community of Takoma Park, Maryland — an event that draws in kids and parents of all ages.

Simply set out a number of toys (sidewalk chalk, jump ropes, Frisbees, balls, etc.), and invite the neighborhood over. A few items in a dress-up box can also add a lot of fun. For more information on setting up a play day, check out Rumbaugh’s tips on Let’s Play America.

Find more of Rumbaugh’s summer play advice when you play or download the full podcast episode.

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