Kickstarting Your Child’s Learning and Play at Home (with Lisa Griffen-Murphy)

Acclaimed early childhood educator and play-master Lisa Griffen-Murphy joins Janet to encourage parents to release themselves from the pressure of making play and learning happen for their kids. Lisa shares from her vast experience facilitating children’s play in every environment imaginable. She offers specific, open-ended ideas for inspiring learning through play and assures parents that their kids know instinctively what they’re doing.

Transcript of “Kickstarting Your Child’s Learning and Play at Home (with Lisa Griffen-Murphy)”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Needless to say, these are strange and trying times for all of us and some of us have never spent so much time with our children. No doubt, they can be demanding. So if there was ever a time for strong, consistent, confident leadership, this is certainly it. And with so much time on everyone’s hands, not surprisingly, I’m receiving a lot of questions about structuring time for kids, for learning, for play. Parents are feeling a responsibility to take on these roles of not only parent but teacher and camp counselor, among other things. And this is why I invited today’s guest, Lisa Griffen-Murphy.

If you don’t know who she is, she’s an early childhood specialist. She teaches and works with children. She’s been doing that for over 20 years in various environments. She has her own company, Ooey Gooey, Inc., and she offers childhood education workshops, trainings and other resources for parents and caregivers. She’s authored four books, produced dozens of teacher training DVDs, and is a very popular keynote speaker at educational conferences. She presents hundreds of workshops each year to both domestic and international audiences, and her understanding of the importance of play is obvious in her personal and professional life, and that’s why I wanted to bring her on today.

Hey there, Lisa.

Lisa Griffen-Murphy:  Hi.

Janet Lansbury:  Thank you so much for being on with me.

Lisa Griffen-Murphy:   Well, thanks for inviting me.

Janet Lansbury:  Lisa and I, just to give everybody a little backstory, we met at a conference where we were both presenters and she is extraordinary. She is an amazing performer on top of being inspiring, brilliant, insightful, so creative and informative. So if you ever get a chance to see Lisa… I imagine you’re going to be doing things online maybe more? But she tours and, anyway, we met and we made a vow to collaborate.

Lisa Griffen-Murphy:   Made a vow. You’re not allowing yourself to toot your own horn here. So the reason that we met is because I got so excited that I was sharing the conference stage with Janet. I flew out to the town a day early thinking that I was going to be able to sit for like a full day and receive her wisdom after only really interacting with her and learning about her online, and I was like, oh my gosh, she’s going to be there. So I flew out a day early. And then I found out she was only like the nighttime presenter. I was like, argh. So I was honored that she was able, I guess, able, willing to sit around and shoot the breeze with me and talk shop after hours. So thank you for that.

Janet Lansbury:  Goodness. Well, thank you so much. I could go back to tooting your horn even more at this point, which is, of course my instinct. But why don’t we get into how we can help.

Parents are having a lot of difficulty right now. They’ve got kids at home, they want them to learn and stay on track. They also want them to be able to be independent and self-directed in their play and work. For the younger children, obviously, it’s just going to be play.

Parents are giving me feedback like: “Well, yes, you talk about self-directed play, you talk about independent play, but my child can’t do that.” Or, “My child won’t do that, because they are an only child and they’re clinging with me if they need me.” Or, “They have ADHD.” Or, “They just can’t do that, they always want me to play with them.” I would love to find some ways to help parents help their children get over this hump.

Lisa Griffen-Murphy:  I think the answer to that is going to be so very specific and unique to whoever’s ears are listening to what we say. So I’m giving everybody permission to kind of dial it down a little bit. You don’t need to be recreating school right now in your homes for your young children. And I think sometimes just granting permission to take a big breath helps eliminate some of the stress of what folks are feeling. That’s at least what I’m telling everybody.

And as much as everybody wants to be: let’s create a schedule and let’s do some activity planning, that’s awesome. And I’m going to say right now let’s be mindful of where actually we are in the situation. And in the circumstances, if that makes sense, you don’t need to put on your teacher hat and turn your home into a childcare center or a preschool or an elementary school.

I think children are able to play by themselves. I think that families in general have maybe become accustomed to entertaining each other a little bit more. And I don’t say that with any judgment or finger pointing. I think often we’re not comfortable sitting in the time that it might take for children to get an idea for themselves to move on. And so as adults because we get kind of panicky and rushed, we will project our stuff onto the kids and the kids of course they’re going to pick up on that. So we’re like, come on, just pick something, go do something, go do something.

Whereas if maybe we just turned around, we know they’re safe, right? They’re in the house, they’re in their bedroom or whatever, in the living room, the basement, they’re probably for the most part, not in an environment where we need to be overly worried about their physical safety. Let them be bored for a little bit. That’s okay.

Janet Lansbury:  Absolutely. You bring up so many important points. First of all, the pressure that we put on ourselves to have this curriculum and make it all happen and-

Lisa Griffen-Murphy:  Yeah, you don’t need to do that at all.

Janet Lansbury:  No.

Lisa Griffen-Murphy:   I’m telling you to stop it.

Janet Lansbury:  Just let go of that.

We were in the fire a year and a half ago, and my son was a senior in high school. A lot of important things were happening at that time. There was important work that they were needing to do in their senior year of high school. Had to do college apps. He basically had two months where he hung around with friends and was off the curriculum. And you know what, it really showed me something about this fear that we have that our kids are going to fall behind. They were fine. And this was a situation where it wasn’t the whole world, like it is now. It was just these pockets of kids that were not going to keep up at that point. And it was just such a lesson for me in letting go and trusting-

Lisa Griffen-Murphy:  That it’s going to work out, right?

Janet Lansbury:  That it’s going to work out. And there’s so much learning that happens in the things that aren’t academic that people call the “soft skills.” And I don’t really even like that term, because it somehow seems to lessen it. But these skills that are so much more important than academic skills, things like collaboration and critical thinking and problem solving and-

Lisa Griffen-Murphy:  And the initiative that you’re talking about. Looking at the stuff that might be available in my home, and maybe it’s okay for me to just lay on my bed and stare at the ceiling or lay outside and stare at the sky. Like, they don’t need to be busy all the time. You have to be mindful, I think, of not feeding the busy monster that is constantly present in our life right now.

I mean, I had a friend she’s like, “At least I haven’t napped this much since I was in college.” Fine. For those of us who aren’t really directly impacted physically, like we’re not sick or anything like that, the world is giving you an opportunity to reboot and recalibrate.

I think it’s okay to kind of get into that, I’m going to say the word “lazy,” because I think that’s a hard word for some of us. When we don’t feel like we’re doing anything, we start to second guess absolutely everything. I want to be the voice saying it’s going to be okay. If you had a laundry list of stuff that as an adult you’ve wanted to take care of and maybe your kids are able to kind of self-entertain themselves for a little bit, go do some of it.

Janet Lansbury:  Yeah. I think so much of this is about parents being able to let go of the agenda and the busyness. And by doing so, we can release that responsibility that we feel, that guilt that we sometimes feel to keep our child entertained, to keep the plates spinning in the air.

I remember as a kid, I had three sisters and we had nonstop games that required really nothing. I mean, we made them up with what we had. But I still remember saying to my mother, “We’re so bored!” But we got to express it and it was short lived. And then my mother would say, “Do you want to help with the laundry?” or something.

Immediately, we’d get out a list. And what we used to do is we’d write down all the different games that we could play. Maybe one would be a board game, but most of them were things that we made up. Like we’d take sheets of paper… My dad was in the office machine business in those days, and we had these big reams of paper. And we would make scenes together like that everybody’s at the park. And we’d have these different stories of the people and the families and all the things that were going on. They were the kind of like murals. We had this game we made up with my mother’s shoes where we took them out of the closet and hid them in the dark. I mean, she loved that.

But we would make the list and then we would vote, what’s your first choice, second, third, and then whichever had the lowest number, we would do that.

But yeah, we had so many ideas. And it came from my parents’ (and that was kind of a thing in those days) benign neglect, I guess. Nobody was trying to lift us out of boredom. It was just, yeah, sometimes you’re bored. And then at that point, that’s when you think of stuff to do. But if you never get bored, you never think of stuff to do.

Lisa Griffen-Murphy:  True. And it takes time. And I want to be sure to point that out. It’s very, very important, at least from a child development lens: preparation time. I would bet you dollar for donuts that that was at least a couple of hours of drawing out those scenes, planning out what those stories might have been, making that list and a voting, all that negotiation. The pre-play planning that often happens without adults actually seeing it is often more important than the play that actually transpires. And the common denominator there, and especially for your parent listeners that I want them to hear, is that that takes time. And often as adults, when we watch some of that it doesn’t look like anything “beneficial” is happening.

So often, unintentionally, we squash what could very well be the most important part of the play that is unfolding, whether it’s with siblings or a playgroup, whatever it might be, the group of kids that are playing together, whether it’s a big group of kids or a small group of kids. So just kind of turning a blind eye. I love that benign neglect. I mean, that’s exactly how we were all raised. Nobody got bored. Your mama would make it clean the toilet.

Janet Lansbury:  Oh, my goodness, I feel like I did have so much time as a little kid. We were kind of busy, but you’re right. It was certainly coming from us and not from the outside.

What about somebody with one child?

Lisa Griffen-Murphy:  That’s tricky. I think it’s going to depend on what’s been the M.O. up until this point? Are you breaking the standard operating procedure? Are you changing the rules of the game? It’s going to be a lot trickier. If the reality is that your kid is always kind of in your bubble and you always are working together or moving together like as one solid unit, it’s almost like a detoxing, right? You’re going to have to baby step each other away.

And I’m a big fan, especially as kids get older, of calling it what it honestly is. “Hey, guys, mom, auntie, grandma, we’ve all been in the house together and I’m needing some time for myself. I’m going to be in my room, I’m going to be reading a book,” whatever it might be.

“This is going to be for this time of day, in the afternoon or in the morning or whatever, where we’re going to be having to figure stuff out by ourselves.” And owning it, right? You don’t need to over explain it. You don’t need to put anything else around it, language-wise, verbiage-wise but, “This is your time to go play by yourself. You can use stuff in your bedroom, you can do stuff in the living room,” whatever those parameters might be, but not to set yourself up for biting off more than you can chew, right?

I mean, I’m a realist, if nothing else. If you and your kid are always moving together like one person, an hour, let’s be real, that might be too long for everybody. So let’s start small, the next 15 minutes, next 20 minutes. And then you might find that the kid might end up initiating, like, “Hey, I want a little bit longer.” The mama might say, “I want a little bit longer.” You just got to put some parameters on it and be consistent, but be realistic with maybe the new “rules” that you’re putting into place.

Janet Lansbury:  I love that. And I love presenting it positively so that it’s not: now this is bad time that you have to have because I’m doing something. “This is your time to do with whatever you want” (within reason). “But this is your time.”

And then also releasing ourself of that other thing that I get from parents a lot, which is: “I’ve got to make this work for my child. I’ve got to set up the activity. And then they don’t stay with it.” So what would you recommend parents have available?

Lisa Griffen-Murphy:  Well, you have to be very mindful of making sure that it’s not stuff that traditionally or typically would require you to have to be in that area with them. You know what I’m saying? Like, if Play-Doh is something that your kids are used to, you don’t have to micromanage it, you don’t have to be worried about the floor. Just put the Play-Doh on the table. “We’re going to make a fresh batch together, and then y’all are going to play with it by yourself for a little bit because mama is going to be over here on the phone with grandma or reading a book for a little bit.” Whatever it might be, right? So we start out together, and then we separate together.

But if you’ve never ever made Play-Doh with your kids before, you might not want to start with something like that, right? Because your brain, even though you think that you’re wanting to, like, let it go, you’re going to be aware. You’ll be like: oh my god, what are they going to do? Are they going to eat it? They’re going to put it in the mouth, they’re going to put it in their hair? Because you don’t know how the kids are going to use it. So you want to start with something that perhaps they’ve already had some element of experience with, right?

You don’t drag the paints and the easel out for the first time ever inside the home, and then actually think that the walls and the carpet aren’t going to get paint on them. So being realistic with what you put out.

I’m a big fan of being a little bit more flexible right now. Maybe you don’t typically let the kids do paint or watercolors or crayons or markers in the kitchen. But maybe this week we’re going to put some butcher paper or big sheets of newspaper down on the floor, and let them actually just change perspective. So maybe markers is something that they all have some experience with. But today we’re going to put the paper on the wall or in the driveway or out on the patio. So you’re just kind of changing the location, changing the scenery, but it’s still… At the end of the day, it’s familiar materials.

The other thing, too, is that even if it is something new, like maybe making a batch of Play-Doh together or oobleck, which is mixing together cornstarch and water, sometimes you just need to be there for the beginning stages of it, and then you can step aside a little bit.

Yesterday I posted kitchen gadget tracing, putting out some unique things that you might have in your kitchen. Open that one drawer that you don’t ever really use and all sorts of unique things might be in there, cookie cutters, wooden spoons, potato mashers. I have clean fly swatters because we paint with them, putting out markers and letting kids trace the shapes. Very basic.

Yesterday I went outside and we did rubbings, like we did crayon rubbings of the sidewalk and crayon rubbings of the manhole and the storm drain cover. And I was like, yeah, maybe you can find some coins or some quarters or some keys. Basic stuff. It doesn’t have to be overly sophisticated.

Janet Lansbury:  Yeah, those are great ideas. And then I think we see, right, we see what our child is drawn to, what kind of things they want to focus on, and what they have a long attention span for? To not judge that and be open to it, whatever it is. Because children could learn so many things through rubbings. They can learn about colors and shapes and an enormous amount of things just through one experience. So we can really trust our child, right?

Lisa Griffen-Murphy:  Here’s the scenario, I’m going to set the scene…

I bet there’s something that all of your children love to do, to where if you said, “Get in the car, we have to leave now.” Like, if they were in the middle of it, they’d be like, “No, this is my most favorite thing!” Whatever that might be, puzzles or trains, or trucks, or Legos, or Magna-Tiles, or drawing, cutting and gluing and pasting or acting out and role playing, whatever that one thing is that your kid hates being interrupted when they’re doing, start with that. You know what I’m saying?

Because sometimes as adults, we forget that although we crave often that novelty and changing it up and something fresh, sometimes your kids are going to be perfectly content finally just being able to do something until they’re done. So I really can’t emphasize that enough, that you don’t have to overthink the situation that we’re all faced with right now. Most kids have a favorite thing to do, and let that be the starting spot, instead of thinking that we got to be changing it up and making it something different every 20 minutes.

Janet Lansbury:  That is so true.

Lisa Griffen-Murphy:  Because often the adults need that, not the kids.

Janet Lansbury:  And often as parents, we want to interrupt children for them to do something that we feel is a more important activity or something that we feel they would like more or whatever, rather than fostering them to stay longer and go deeper into whatever “boring” looking thing they might be doing, or meaningless looking thing.

Lisa Griffen-Murphy:  And look at all that stress now you’re putting on yourself as a parent, as an adult, as a caregiver or a provider, aunt, uncle, grandma, whoever you are. Like, leave it alone. You’re making your job harder than it needs to be. You’ve got other stuff that you can go pay attention to. You’ve been craving an afternoon to yourself, now you got one. Now you’re like, what do I do with it? You got to be careful what you wish for.

Janet Lansbury:  Right. I had this wonderful call with a parent the other day. They were feeling a lot of pressure with a 7 and 10 year old to make school happen at home, all those things that you were saying in the beginning of this. And she was doing PE time with her seven year old and that was going to the seaside, I guess, or to the beach. And he was picking up crabs and he wanted to stay doing that. She was getting annoyed because he wasn’t coming back and they needed to go home and do a worksheet for the next part of their day of the schedule. The idea of picking up crab… First of all, I am terrified of picking up a crab. I don’t know how you pick up a crab without it snapping you with its little claws.

Lisa Griffen-Murphy:  You’ll probably figure it out really quick.

Janet Lansbury:  Yeah, but I thought that was such a brilliant activity not to interrupt if she could possibly help it. That, compared to a worksheet. Oh my gosh, as a child, the richness of what you’re actually learning there.

Lisa Griffen-Murphy:  Yeah. Especially right now, when people are feeling perhaps some self-imposed pressure to recreate school in their home, and they’re doing this homeworky stuff and these to-dos and in these worksheets. Who are they for? Like, are you going to send them back in to the teacher? You’re going to mail them to grandma? Like, why are you doing them? I think it’s okay to pause and ask ourselves that question. Look at that rich, amazing experience that was perhaps undermined because we felt that we had to go like turn it into a lesson. But the lesson was a lot more rich and relevant and real and meaningful before you stopped it.

Janet Lansbury:  Yeah. Giving ourselves a break, letting go of this fear of keeping up, I guess.

Lisa Griffen-Murphy:  But I think, honestly, if you sit people down, especially… And I love to do this when I talk to parent groups. When you sit them down and you talk to them individually, a lot of times, if they’re honest, they’re only doing that stuff because they think they’re supposed to be doing it or because the lady down the street is doing it. Whatever. But individually, most of the time, nobody ever says, “Well, I think this is what should be happening.” There’s this general sense of, it’s just what has to be happening. So we’re like fueling this myth. But individually, nobody really is going to raise their hand and be like, “Yeah, I 100% believe that this is what my kid is supposed to be doing.”

So I give adults and parents, especially, permission to kind of bring it back in. Who is this actually for? I’m showing you how to get some time back in your own life, in your family life by not feeling that you have to be jumping through this pen and paper meaningless work, especially when you could take in the time that you’re saving on not doing that kind of stuff. And you transfer that time to having rich, meaningful experiences on the beach with the crabs, just outside digging in the dirt with your own kid, having real conversations instead of thinking that absolutely everything I do with my child has to somehow be translated into this academic teachy moment. It doesn’t.

Janet Lansbury:  Yeah. And as you are noting, we can also enjoy the play when we do have time to be with them. There’s play happening all around us with children, but we don’t see it as play. Or we don’t see it as valuable learning type play, which all play is.

Lisa Griffen-Murphy:  Then we end up sending a message to the children that it’s not really valid unless the adult sees value in it. And so then, again, now we’re adding to that cycle of, on one side of our mouth, we might complain or whine that, “My gosh, my kid always seems to need me up in the middle of it.” But then if you’ve actually like had a video and a rewind button, and you watch how you essentially started training your children to require you to get in, because they started to see that the adult doesn’t value what they’re doing organically. So of course: why would I even bother starting to do something because you’re going to come in and tell me how you want me to be doing it anyway? So we’ve we’ve often created our own problem.

Janet Lansbury:  Yeah. And I think this situation offers us an opportunity to really, as you said, do less and start to see through a different lens, really the way children see the world, which is a lot more interesting than the way we see the world, to be honest.

Lisa Griffen-Murphy:  What you just said, doing less, and at the same time, believing it when people like me say things like doing less does not mean that you’re shirking your duties, right? Doing less doesn’t mean that you’re not being a good parent. Calming down and taking a breath and slowing down a little bit does not mean that you’re not doing your job. Many of us and the teachers that I work with are included in this. It’s like if it’s not difficult in some way, does that mean I’m not doing my job? Does it have to be hard for it to be valid? Does it have to be something big in order to mean that it’s meaningful?

Sometimes we don’t realize how much of that Kool-Aid we’ve been drinking until we find ourselves in this moment of slowing down and doing less. Then that little creepy voice comes in and it’s like, no, this is how to make it better. This is how to make it more Pinterest worthy. This is how to do it so I can take a picture and post it and see how many likes I get. It’s okay. Like, you don’t realize how addicted sometimes we’ve gotten to that outside social media approval of some of it. Instead of just being 100% in the moment, and receiving the moment as it is, not as how we want to tweak it and send it out into the world.

Janet Lansbury:  Right, exactly. And what you’re saying about what we’re presented with right now that could open up this new way for us… I was just thinking also about a parent that I worked with on the phone who had a child that she’d adopted as a young toddler. And she was very hooked into playing with him, really felt like she needed to, because he would continue to ask for that. And believing that because of his situation, and he’d had a difficult early first year, that he needed that extra help. So I was trying to help her see how she could trust him. That he was capable of entertaining himself and that it would be okay. I was trying to help her with that.

And then she wrote back to me that she’d gotten the flu and actually couldn’t play with him. What happened? He started playing by himself. He started playing kind of in a doll play role-play type thing. Setting things up, making stories. Yeah. So it had to get to that point where it was so clear to her that she could not do anything. Maybe that’s a benefit in where we are now — that it’s going to become clearer for people that they can’t be there propping up their children’s play all the time or motivating it.

Lisa Griffen-Murphy:  There are lots of definitions of play. There are lots of checkmark bullet points like, “how do you know it’s play?” But what are the common denominators through all the different individual theories is that it’s freely chosen and you can quit when you’re done.

Janet Lansbury:  Exactly.

Lisa Griffen-Murphy:  And just even considering those two characteristics of play, just those two of the hundreds that we could probably identify, freely chosen and I can quit when I’m done. Right? That almost requires the adults to be on the sidelines. And it’s not to say that the kids aren’t enjoying themselves when the adult is with them. But does it actually undermine the true playfulness of what is actually happening? And where did it come from that we think that we needed to be involved? That’s a whole conversation in and of itself.

Janet Lansbury:  Yes. Because if we can learn to be with children in that less actively involved way around play, that also translates for them into an easier transition to when we’re not there. So we can be there knowing that children feel our presence, and that that is very validating — to have a parent just interested in you without you having to bring them in to join you and think of the imaginary thing that your parent has to be. Just to be able to sit and daydream and have your parent there with you and be with you and interested in you without you having to perform anything. It’s so much more validating, anyway. So yeah, stepping back and-

Lisa Griffen-Murphy:  I had a six-year-old child tell me once, “Ms. Lisa, you are always in the middle, but you’re never in the way.”

Janet Lansbury:  That’s beautiful.

Lisa Griffen-Murphy:  Probably the best compliment I’ve ever gotten in my life.

I broke up with the word “teacher” a long time ago and really have explored, probably for this most recent last 15, 20 years of my career, the idea of being a facilitator within the space as opposed to being the teacher or the keeper. How can I allow the children to have deep, rich explorations within this space without needing to be front and center? Moving to the sidelines of their lives.

Janet Lansbury:  There’s a good message in that for all of us.

Well, Lisa, thank you so much for being with me and sharing your wisdom for parents out there that I’m sure will benefit from this. Lisa has a book, she has several books, but this one: Lisa Murphy on Play: The Foundation of Children’s Learning gives you the basics for how important play is, all the things that they’re learning and how to provide it.

Lisa Griffen-Murphy:  Yes. My books are published by Redleaf Press. So there’s the shameless plug there. You can get all five of my books from Redleaf Press website.

Currently, we’re calling it the corona vacation, the coronacation, I don’t know if it’s too soon for that. But we are posting a lot of like daily videos on YouTube of me reading books and of various easy around-the-house activities that folks can be doing. So if you are brand new to me, I’ll give you that shameless plug. I’m @OoeyGooeyLady on Instagram and also on YouTube and you can follow along there.

Janet Lansbury:  Great. So your YouTube channel is called OoeyGooeyLady?

Lisa Griffen-Murphy:  Correct. OoeyGooeyLady lady. Pretty much OoeyGooeyLady for everything.

Janet Lansbury:  Fantastic.

Lisa Griffen-Murphy:  Thank you very much for having me on your show and it was an honor and I hope that we can chat again.

Janet Lansbury:  Thank you, Lisa. This has been great. I think it’s going to be really helpful.

Also, please check out some of the other podcasts on my website They’re all indexed by subject and category, so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in. And both of my books are available on audio, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can find them through my website or on, and you can also get them in paperback at Amazon and in ebook at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and

Thanks for listening. We can do this.

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