Updated: Dec 28, 2019
The Oxford English dictionary defines play as being able to ‘engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose’. I beg to differ slightly; play is in fact a serious and important business particularly for children. I would go as far as to say for adults too. For adults, our own version of play, whatever it may be e.g. self-care, is good for the soul. In this blog post, I will be sharing with you the importance of play, particularly us playing with our children and the impact it has on them. I will also be talking about how we can play with our children. Play is so important to the optimal child development that it has been recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right of every child.1
In the interest of full disclosure, I feel the need to say that I struggle with playing with my own child, despite knowing the importance of it. It’s a bit like knowing you need to take your make up off before you go to bed, it’s the best thing for your skin (and pillows) but it is the last thing on your mind when you come home from a night out. At work, I ‘play’ for a living and often when I get home, this is the furthest thing from my mind, I am exhausted. My daughter’s requests for play often come at a time when I am about to start the laundry, reply to an email, cook dinner or tend to her baby brother. Her timing is just not ideal in my view but it is of course ideal for her as it’s what she needs from me in that moment. I recall a time when her four month old baby brother had just delivered the most spectacular ‘poo-nami’(if you have had to look up this word and haven’t experienced it, I envy you). I had just finished clearing it up amidst him screaming his head off as if he was the one that had to endure cleaning up the mess. My daughter saunters in from her bedroom with a toy and shoves it in my face. ‘You be Rainbow Dash and I will be Twilight Sparkle!’ ‘Really?! Right now?!’ were my thoughts but I managed to say through gritted teeth ‘just give me 5 minutes darling.’ What emerged from that particular play session that I reluctantly joined in was a really lovely bonding moment with my daughter, where I realize for about the 1000th time in her life time that she really is a great kid. I digress, I am meant to be selling the importance of play to you.
Play for all the irritations and inconveniences it causes us grown up, is essentially our children’s safe way to communicate. It is the way they work through their stuff. We all have our own way of working through our stuff, be it, hitting the gym, calling that friend for a long chat, soaking in a bath, a glass of wine. Children are no exception to this. Play comes naturally to children and acts as an outlet and a means to communicate.
From an educational perspective, play is very much focused on in the Early Years and for good reason. A significant proportion of children’s learning at that age comes through play. A range of skills are gained such as language, physical development, imagination and creativity, social skills and many more. They essentially discover the world through play. Play also acts as a communication tool, whether intentionally or not. Children are often communicating something through their play. The communication might be as simple as ‘I just really like train tracks’ to ‘Things feel out of control for me right now but I can control having the train tracks in exactly the order I like it’ this therefore indicates that play can also be a coping strategy. Role play is a form of play that often contains the biggest communication from children. Children tend to act out situations they are familiar with or fantasy situations. In her pretend play, my daughter fluctuates between being a unicorn, a vet or a teacher, nice range of characters there.
Children often role play family life, home life, school life and going on adventures of varying kinds. A lot of imagination and creativity is nurtured in all play but particularly so role play. If you have ever sat and observed a child play, you may have noticed that they have this unique ability to switch between fantasy and reality seamlessly. One minute the unicorn is sliding down the rainbow with a sheep that we are pretending is a baby unicorn on its back and the next minute the unicorn can’t cross the road without her mummy and daddy. Pretend play more simply also helps children understand how to interact with others, to understand their own feelings and to express their emotions. In their pretend play they can be brave and conquer fears, they can practice a range of roles including adult roles. It nurtures social skills such as sharing, negotiation and turn taking.
Play therefore encourages and nurtures independence thus building self esteem. Through their play they can master anything, regulate their behaviour and mood. Play actually changes the brain and contributes to healthy brain development. ‘The experience of play changes the connections of the neurons at the front end of your brain,’ says Sergio Pellis, a researcher at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. ‘Without play experience, those neurons aren't changed’ he adds. He goes further to state that it is those changes in the prefrontal cortex during childhood that help wire up the part of the brain that has a critical role in regulating emotions, making plans and solving problems.2 We know that 80% of our brain development is completed by age 3 and 90% by 5, that is a significant portion to say the least. Considering play is a significant portion of the lives of most under 5 year olds, it is clear why research had proven that play does contribute significantly to our children’s development. Play is therefore shaping and impacting our children’s brains and preparing them for life and adulthood. Their brains need that regular stimulation so that they can improve their physical, emotional and mental health. It is also needed as it how they develop skills and habits and attitudes that will likely be with them throughout their lives.
I have highlighted the importance of play, now how do you actually play? The beauty of playing well with your children is that the best kind of play is child led. With my mum hat on, I see that as less work for me. I don’t actually have to do a lot, just be actively present. By that I mean, try to focus on the play and the interaction with your child, don’t let your mind wander to your to do list or what’s for dinner, although I am certainly guilty of that. The role that we adults have in children’s play is important, we are offering a nurturing and containing space for them.. It can contribute to building a positive relationship and building a secure attachment. It also means that we are reinforcing the importance of play. The communication is huge to the child when their grown up gets on the floor and is interested in their world even if all we are doing is simply observing. Whilst there is no right or wrong way to play- it’s play! I will share what I do with you.
1. Keep it short and sweet – I wish I had all the time in the world to play with my daughter, I don’t and the last thing I want her to sense when I am playing with her is that I am distracted, impatient etc. So I allow 10-15 mins of focused only on her play daily (well almost daily). She knows this and is used to this. Give a gentle warning when you are approaching when you want to stop playing. Often I can then leave her to play and get on with my tasks. She is happy because she has had that quality time with me.
2. Drop your own agenda – Don’t push, direct, instruct etc. It doesn’t matter in that moment if Mr Potato Head’s arm is being used as a magic wand and not in its box where it is supposed to be. Don’t do what I used to do and use it as an opportunity to slip in some formal learning like math. My daughter could usually smell it a mile off when I tried to do that and she would say, mummy we are not doing numbers now. Just observe, encourage, and comment on what you see, avoid too many questions.
3. Get on the same level – meet your child wherever they are, figuratively and literally. Tap into your inner child smile and get stuck in. It is also important to be patient and in a receptive mood, it is for this reason I prefer to keep the play to little and often as there is only so much unicorn play I can stand. Play offers an opportunity for us as parents to fully engage with our children’s world, so connecting with them at that play level is a great way to support this.
4. No fancy toy needed – I type this with baited breath as I am fully aware of the latest trend for fancy wooden, Montessori style toys. They are not needed for good quality play. Don’t get me wrong, I am a fan of the Montessori method, what I am not a fan of is investing more in the toy than the actual play itself. Children have fantastic imaginations; we can nurture that and build on their creativity by playing with anything. My daughter has been known to use her hair bows as characters. We were at an event, she was bored, out popped the bows and she began playing. She is a very imaginative child and whilst I would love to take full credit and list a bunch of things I did to contribute to this wonderfully imaginative child, I can’t. I simply let her be and ensure my play with her is child led.
5. Feedback and reassurance – At the end of the play, I always say to my child that I enjoyed playing with her and I am specific about what I enjoyed doing. This does wonders for a child’s confidence and self esteem.
Play is the adult equivalent of going for a meal at your favourite restaurant with your favourite person and having a long conversation and putting the world to rights over a glass of wine or beverage of choice. As our children enter adulthood, sadly there are very few opportunities for play. The play phase of their life is very short so let them enjoy it and ensure you are a key part of it. Playing together fosters a sense of belonging between the child and the parent. #makingmemories.
1. Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Convention on the Rights of the Child. General Assembly Resolution 44/25 of 20 November 1989. Available at: www.unhchr.ch/html/menu3/b/k2crc.htm.
2. “Scientists Say Child's Play Helps Build A Better Brain” August 6, 20143:43 AM ET Heard on Morning Edition https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2014/08/06/336361277/scientists-say-childs-play-helps-build-a-better-brain?t=1553117360463