builderMy nine-year-old daughter and eight-year-old son are engaged in a heated debate about the best way to build a giant billboard. One believes that cardboard reinforced with straws and tape will do the trick. The other is a huge fan of wooden blocks. And tape. They always agree on tape.

After several minutes of intense conversation (and two sketches to illustrate both ideas), they agree to try both strategies. In the end, they combine the two ideas, and a spectacular billboard is the result. When all was said and done, the entire process (from debating to planning to building) took about two days.

High-level play is critical to the social, emotional, and cognitive growth of young children and has many benefits. Children who engage in high-level play boast rich imaginations, better developed problem-solving skills, improved literacy and math skills, and increased building and planning skills.

The only catch is that kids today are short on time for high-level play. With sports and other extracurricular activities taking center stage once they enter elementary school, children lack time to create sustained play scenarios. That’s a shame, because one thing I see over and over again when kids do have time for play is that every child is a natural architect.

When children have time to engage in unstructured play, they hone their building and planning skills. These skills come in handy when it comes to things like math and science later on, but tapping into these skills is a lot of fun for little kids. While schools across the globe race to create fun and engaging STEM programs for little kids, the truth is that children will create their own STEM labs at home if we let them. When unstructured play becomes the norm, kids become builders, scientists, mathematicians and architects simply because they can!

Try these simple changes to your family routine to bring out the inner architect in your child:

Use the recycling for art.
When my children get the urge to build, the recycling bin is their first stop. All too often we get caught up in having the best building sets by age and stage, but the truth is that while building sets can be great fun, they remove some of the creativity and planning from the process. Don’t get me wrong, I love a set of directions as much as the next person, but for children to get in touch with their inner architects, they need to try making something from nothing.

Rooting through the recycling bin for building supplies gives kids the opportunity to plan and visualize their building projects. It also encourages them to harness the power of trial and error. Some choices might work better than others, and that will help them learn.

Prioritize nature play.
Have you ever taken a walk through the woods and stood back while your children attempted to figure out how to cross a stream without getting wet or climb a tall tree? It can be difficult to remain quiet while children struggle to solve a problem, but jumping in with tips and help each time robs them of the opportunity to design their own solutions.

When you learn to stand back, you’ll find that kids are experts at building things like bridges, ladders and step stools. Let your architect shine by giving him plenty of time to navigate nature without time constraints or unnecessary input.

Create a playful home.
I always joke that my house is in a constant state of disarray because it’s a playful home, but the truth is you can have a playful home without tripping over shoebox towers around every corner.

Find a place to store the building supplies so that your little architect knows right where to go when inspiration strikes! You don’t need a whole playroom to encourage high-level play; you need time, patience, and a little bit of space. When children know that building (even the messy, glue-filled kind) is celebrated in their home, they get to work on designing projects and honing their architectural skills.

All too often kids lack the time and space to do what comes naturally to them. I’ve watched a group of elementary school children build a fortress out of cardboard boxes and masking tape and a group of preschoolers build an airport out of giant cardboard blocks and a little imagination. When these skills go unused, kids shy away from them as they grow. When given the opportunity to act as architects, however, they practice skills that will last a lifetime.

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