Susannah Robbins continues to explore the importance of play for children’s development, especially in this period of lockdown and closed schools.

[New City Magazine – June 2020, page 18-19]

Play Theory. Well that sounds like a sure-fire way to suck the joy out of play, doesn’t it? However, it is the key to making play a more successful, more enjoyable experience for everyone. So… who, what, why, when and how?

Who should play? The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Child, Article 31 reads: Every child has the right to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child.’

 What is play? The noun play is defined as: ‘activity engaged in for enjoyment and recreation, especially by children.’ Play is also a verb: to ‘engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose’, or to ‘take part in’. Both definitions use the word ‘activity’, play is not passive – one participates in play and is rewarded with ‘enjoyment’. Play is a pleasurable experience.

Why do we play? Jean Piaget, a psychologist famed for his study into children’s cognitive development viewed play as integral to the development of intelligence in children. Psychologist Lev Vygotsky wrote ‘In play a child is always above his average age, above his daily behaviour; in play it is as though he were a head taller than himself.’ Essentially, play supports human development. It helps to build our communication and language skills, grow our relationships and manage emotions. It encourages our critical thinking and problem solving, our teamwork, and cognitive development.

When should we play? From birth, little and often.

 How long should we play for? Society would have us believe that we should be playing with our children every waking minute, and while that’s nice, it’s neither practical nor true, meaningful play can be achieved in a few minutes. The primal purposes for play are survival (to establish a connection with your primary caregiver so that they are more inclined to keep you safe) and to learn new skills.

How to play? There are many ways to play, I explain some of them below. Each type of play serves a specific purpose, but every child is different and not all children enjoy all types of play. A little observation of your child in their natural habitat, playing without adult direction or interference will go a long way in understanding their preferred style.

  • Role-play: Role-play, or ‘let’s pretend’ games are fantastic for un-picking and exploring emotions, boundaries and roles that we have been placed in. Children most often will take on the role of the more authoritative position and subject you to playing the part of ‘baby’, or even better, ‘dog’. You will see plenty of role-play when circumstances or routines have been changed, for example when your little one starts school, they may like to play schools. This is their way of making sense of all the rules, routines and rituals that they have learned. Role-play is a fantastic tool for teaching empathy, to explore how others may be feeling and how to respond accordingly.
  • Rough-and-tumble: I have three young boys and as a result I’m no stranger to rough-and-tumble! However, it was only recently that I learned the full extent of the benefits of this style of play. By allowing physical play, your children are building strength and muscle stamina, essential for when they begin to learn to write – the bigger (gross motor) muscles need to be strong to allow the smaller (fine motor) muscles to develop finesse and precision. Rough-and-tumble also helps your child to hone their motor planning and coordination. If you have a child who struggles to stay at the table during meal times, or to settle for bed then it is possible that they are seeking sensory feedback. Ten minutes of rough-and-tumble before bed, or a meal, will help to ‘get it out of their system’, and they will be able to focus more easily on the next task. Similarly if your child finds sitting still at school tricky, then where possible walk, run, cycle or scoot to school. These activities provide the sensory feedback that they are seeking at school.
  • Sensory play: These are activities that stimulate the senses and are a wonderfully rich way to play. You could set up a blind taste test to stimulate the sense of taste, or play the American game Marco Polo for the sense of sound, add a few drops of food colouring to the evening bath to stimulate the sense of sight and to make bath-time a really fun and novel experience. You can be so creative with sensory play.
  • STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) play. Problem-solving, experimenting, construction, observing, hypothesising and learning through trial and error are all important life skills and can be supported with STEM activity. Examples of STEM play in action are: junk modelling, den building, cooking, mixing colours, building bridges with dry spaghetti or straws, making zip wires and the old classic kids favourite volcano experiment using bicarbonate of soda and vinegar. Children are never too young to introduce STEM activities to, and never too young to exhibit signs of ability. If you spot that your child is making predictions ‘I think that blue and red paint will make green when they’re mixed together’ praise them! Don’t worry if they’re wrong, but do encourage them to test their hypothesis. Curiosity is wonderful!

I leave you with the words of Plato, from ‘Laws’: ‘The young of all creatures cannot keep their bodies still or their tongues quiet. They are always wanting to move and cry out – some are leaping and skipping and overflowing with playfulness and pleasure.’ I’m sure that we can all relate to this!

Photos(2): © courtesy of Susannah Robbins

See also:

[See the article in full PDF edition on pages 18-19]

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