In both her professional and personal experience, Marti Erickson has always been a big proponent of play. “It’s beneficial to children at every age, from infancy on up, and to adults, too,” she said, citing the cognitive, physical, emotional and stress-reducing elements found in even the simplest kinds of play.
Erickson, who lives in Minneapolis, is the founding director of the Children, Family and Youth Consortium at the University of Minnesota. She specializes in linking research, practice and policy in the areas of parent-child attachment, child abuse prevention and children’s mental health. Erickson retired from the U of M in 2008, but continues to speak and serve as a consultant in the United States and abroad.
For more than a decade, Erickson and her daughter Erin, a women’s health nurse practitioner and specialist in maternal child health, have hosted a weekly podcast called MomEnough®, focusing on a variety of family topics.
Play is a significant and meaningful part of Erickson’s daily life, too. She and husband Ron, parents to Erin and her brother Ryan, are the proud grandparents of five: Grant, Clara, McKinley (Erin’s children) and Miles and Elise (Ryan’s children). They range in age from 13 to 9.
Since becoming a grandmother, Erickson has loved spending time engaging her grandchildren in all different kinds of play. “Play is a state of mind,” Erickson says. “It’s not just something you do.”
Here are six tips from Erickson (with a few notes from grandson McKinley) on ways to play with your grandchildren:
1. Engage in creative play in everyday situations. Whether helping drive grandkids to school or extracurricular activities or taking them on errands, Erickson said time spent in the car with kids is an opportunity for fun. “When my grandchildren were little, I’d ask them for a topic and then I’d make up a song,” she said. “And when they got older, they would make up the songs.” To this day, Clara and McKinley fondly remember a song the three of them created in the car, and which Erickson, an accomplished pianist, later set to music.
According to Erickson, they also composed “chain stories” starting with “Once upon a time,” which often veered off onto humorous tangents. “It’s about turning a boring task, like driving around doing errands, into a playful moment,” she said.
2. Spend time outdoors. As co-founder and chair emerita of the international Children and Nature Network, Erickson believes strongly in the value of people of all ages being outdoors in nature. “Even if it’s just in your backyard, there are so many opportunities to play outside with your grandchildren,” she said, recalling a time when her grandkids set up a “nature center” in her backyard. Other options include neighborhood walks, bike rides, playing tennis or even ice skating.
“Last Christmas, my grandkids got me new ice skates to replace the ones I’d had since I was a teenager. I wondered if I was the only 70-year-old grandma getting ice skates for Christmas,” said Erickson. “But I loved that the grandkids knew that would be my favorite gift in years. It puts a smile on my face to know that when the kids think of me, they think of playing.”
3. Let your grandkids direct the play. Grandparents shouldn’t feel as if they need to plan playtime. “Take the cues from the kids — they can come up with the ideas,” Erickson said. While grandparents and parents might frequently hear “I’m bored” from kids, Erickson spins that complaint around. “I’ll say, ‘That’s exciting! That’s an opportunity for me to see what your creative brain will come up with,’” she said.
All of Erickson’s grandchildren are fans of creative drama—putting on impromptu plays (some including their grandmother, who was once assigned the role of a kindly nanny with a British accent) and playing charades.
“On Thanksgiving, the kids wanted to end the day with an elaborate game of charades. For the first time, the teams were kids vs. adults—the kids won by a mile,” she said. “By the end, we were all laughing hysterically.”
4. Find ways to play away from the small screens. This can be challenging for both kids and adults, but Erickson said encouraging everyone to put away their phones can be framed in a loving way. “Emphasize that when you’re together, it’s a special time,” she said. “Ask them to put away their devices for a while, and assure them they can set some time aside to play games or text their friends later on.” If they’re struggling to make suggestions on what to do instead, toss out some ideas — maybe cook together or take a ball to the park. Board games are a great alternative to electronic ones, Erickson said.
5. Make memories through play. Erickson recently asked McKinley, 11, for his thoughts about playing, and his answers were insightful. “He said playing makes you more creative and that you become a really good problem solver,” she said. In step with his outgoing personality, Erickson said McKinley admitted that he’s “always looking for loopholes” when it comes to problem-solving.
Since Erickson’s grandchildren live nearby, it’s easier for her to have one-on-one time with them. In their discussion about play, she and McKinley shared fond memories of ‘McKinley Mondays’ when she would pick him up after morning preschool and they would spend the afternoon together.
“We had a big discussion about all the things we used to do together—we played with Legos, did art projects and took walks to the lake by our house to see the ducks,” she said. “He also remembered how he always wanted us to take a nap together, too,” Erickson added with a laugh.
6. Vacation or staycation. Over the years, Erickson and her husband have also taken opportunities to travel with their grandchildren, including a trip to the Black Hills with Miles and McKinley the year the boys turned 8. But according to Erickson, you can always enjoy new experiences with your grandchildren in your own hometown.
“For Elise’s birthday last month, I gave her a kids’ travel guide to the Twin Cities. We’re going to schedule a day or two during Christmas break when we will be like tourists in our own city,” said Erickson, adding that Elise is the one planning their agenda.
“Being open to meeting grandchildren where they are, in terms of their interests, is so much fun,” said Erickson. “It’s really a chance to recapture your inner child.”
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