Like most of you, I enjoy watching my kids play, especially when they are playing on their own. I like to listen to the stories they copy or create and discover what it is they enjoy most. My son likes to help me in the kitchen, but it has become more apparent to me, as he plays with sensory material, how much he really enjoys it. Water, playdough, flour, split-peas, rice; all sensory items which become his cooking materials, with me as the person he enjoys cooking for the most. If I don't sit down with him, he brings me my meal, usually consisting of waffles, his favorite food. If I don't provide him with plastic plates and spoons, my daughter's princess tea set becomes of use.
Watching him play is fun, but it's the listening part which is so important. I could simply open my son's sensory tub, stick him outside, and go about with my list of chores, being perfectly happy to have a few minuets to myself. Instead, I often stop behind him and listen through the screen door to hear what he has to say. Because I listen, I know how much he loves helping me to cook. I know without a doubt that waffles are his favorite food. I know his favorite cartoon characters are from Team Umizoomi and Avatar: The Last Airbender because they become his playmates when he is alone. I also know when he misses his grandparents because he'll tell his imaginary friends how he is going to Papa and Honey's house or that Mema is coming for a visit (even if it's not planned). These are all things I've learned from listening.
Once, a dad shared a story with me. When his oldest daughter began Kindergarten, he became frustrated because he would ask his daughter, "what did you do today." She responded with the infuriating, "nothing." He knew, of course, that she did more then nothing, but wanted to communicate with her. He was dying to know if she liked Kindergarten, if she liked her teacher, and what she was learning. A few school days went by, and this dad was walking by his daughter's room while she played with her stuffed animals. He stopped to listen and realized she was using her animals to talk about her day. She was playing school and the animals were classmates. He learned about the centers she played at in class, who her new friends were, and what activities they had done that day. Everything he'd been asking her each day, she acted out with her stuffed friends! It simply came down to creative listening on his part.
Another mom told me a similar story of her daughter who would play preschool with her animals at home. The mom always knew who had been in trouble that day because the daughter would act it out. It taught me to be more discreet when it came to discipline in the classroom.
The next time your child is engaged in play, listen to what they are saying. This is when you'll learn the most about your child. If your child attends preschool, you may learn what they are doing, who their friends are, and even, how their teachers speak to them or the other children. If you homeschool a toddler or preschool aged child, you'll learn their favorite T.V. characters, friends they have connected with during play dates, and activities they enjoy most. And if you are a teacher, listen in the classroom. The children will mimic you and you may not always like what you hear.