Angela Oswalt, MSW, Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.
Creating nurturing spaces isn't just about clearing out some room in the basement for a playroom. "Space" in this sense includes not only the physical area and objects for playing and learning, but also encompasses the time, attitude, and energy necessary for creating nurturing child-parent interactions.
Each home should have a physical space that can be used for play time. Every home is different, and many will not be large enough to have an entire room dedicated to play. That's OK. The kitchen table can be a perfect place for craft and other hands-on activities when it's not being used for serving a meal. Empty space on the floor in the living room can be an ideal place for make-believe or for a puppet show. A parent's bed can be ideal for quiet time reading, singing, or snuggling.
It is important to dedicate whatever space is to be used for play to the task of play, at least during play times. Dedicating an area to play means that other clutter or objects are moved out of the way to create room for the activity that's going to happen. It also means that other potential distractions need to be removed or turned off (e.g., magazines, TV, the cell phone). Creating a dedicated play space sends a message to young children that play activity is important. The space can be restored to its regular use (as a living room or kitchen table, etc.) after play time is over.
In addition to dedicating a play space, it is also important to dedicate a regular play time during which a parent's attention will be fully focused on nurturing interactions. While today's parents have many life responsibilities and often must multi-task to get everything done, every effort should be made to preserve a few times during the week when children can receive their parent's full attention. Parents can be more truly physically, mentally, and emotionally present for their children when they aren't trying to do other things at the same time. Games are more fun when the players are not waiting for a person who is ironing clothes between turns or repeatedly answering cell phone calls.
In recent decades some child development specialists have touted the idea that it doesn't matter how often families and children interact throughout the day so long as children receive 15 to 20 minutes of "quality time" at night for special play activities. However, newer research has found that while quality time is beneficial, children also need to spend time with other family members throughout the day to best promote their development. There is no magic number of minutes or hours that we can recommend for the optimal promotion of child development, because it is not really about the total number of minutes spent interacting. Rather, what is important is that children feel truly involved in and a part of normal activities with their parents and other close family members throughout the day.
Nurturing opportunities are concentrated during special play times, but are not limited to them. Nurturing opportunities may present themselves at many different places and times. Standing in line at the grocery store might be the perfect time and place for a parent and children to share a special game or song. This way, children are still learning, growing, and having fun, and Mom's sanity is saved by the absence of crying and whining all the way past the chocolate bars. Similarly, running an errand can serve double duty as a time to sing silly songs together, or for children to point out colors, letters, and shapes that they see. Something as mundane as going to pick up dry cleaning can become a fun (and educational) experience if parents approach it with love, humor and creativity.
Nurturing spaces are enhanced when books, toys, musical instruments, and other educational objects that will help encourage creativity as well as physical and mental growth are added. Contrary to what toy manufacturers would like the consumer public to believe, toys do not have to be electronic, complicated, and expensive in order to be useful, educational and well-loved. Often, the opposite is true; the most versatile and stimulating toys can be made at home with basic household items and no batteries are required. In addition to purchasing toys new from retail outlets, parents can also find many used toys at thrift stores, garage sales and on line at community sites like freecycle.org or craigslist.com. Particularly when children are young and have not yet been fully brainwashed by mainstream media, they are not concerned with whether a toy is new or used. All they care about is whether it is fun. Books and videos offer additional opportunities for parents to provide children with a nurturing and enriched environment. Families can borrow mountains of books and other learning media (e.g., CDs, puzzles) from the local library. Many more are available at used book shops or new book shops (although prices are higher there).
Many parents find themselves worried about helping their children to meet or beat development milestones. Parents may try to plan and follow a program of activities in a set and inflexible way, or to teach children skills by rote (by the book and strict memorization) in order that they best succeed. Such efforts will likely fail if parents communicate to children, even in subtle non-verbal ways, that they are anxious about particular skills, or worried that their children are failures. Children can easily sense parental anxiety and urgency, and may start feeling pressured and anxious themselves. Such anxiety will tend to harm rather than help children's development. Instead of urgently pushing children to succeed, parents should try to take a more relaxed and laid-back approach to providing creative and educational activities. Parents who are warm, caring, and affectionate toward children encourage emotional security, comfort and self-esteem; qualities that set the best possible foundation for learning. As long as they're making safe and non-destructive choices, young children should be encouraged to direct their own activities and determine their own interests. Children's inborn creativity and individualized learning processes will draw them towards particular activities and away from others. Parents can present children with a range of activity choices and let them choose the ones they prefer. Parents can also alternate between teaching children how to conform with the rules of particular games and following along with children's own play rules and ideas. Allowing children to be "in charge" from time to time can foster their sense of independence and self-esteem, and is a fun role reversal from their usual experience.