Play is a significant part of who we are as people. In fact, it is through play that humans are wired to learn. I love playing. I could play all day. I love games and songs and stories and dancing and make believe. Make believe is the best part of everything ever. But why is pretending to be a golden unicorn with ambitions to be the World Salsa Champion deemed as less then being a Doctor or a Engineer or a Fiscal Officer? I can see the significance of these roles in our society and I am not disputing their worth. They are in the hierarchy of professions though. They use our brains, in a way that we can quantify with money. Play is nothing in the face of medicine, technologies and finances. How have we got here? There are plenty of great thinkers who thought and still think today that play is an essential part of our make up. People at the top of the game in STEM subjects are saying that play is important part of innovation and discovery. However even if I was the best person at pretending to be a golden unicorn with ambitions to be a World Salsa Champion and I mean the BEST, I still wouldn’t be taken serious because make believe and play? Well that’s just for kids!
Kenneth R. Ginsberg writes on behalf of the American Academy of Paediatrics, outlining some of the ways that Play is important:-
“Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. Play is important to healthy brain development. It is through play that children at a very early age engage and interact in the world around them. Play allows children to create and explore a world they can master, conquering their fears while practicing adult roles, sometimes in conjunction with other children or adult caregivers. As they master their world, play helps children develop new competencies that lead to enhanced confidence and the resiliency they will need to face future challenges.”
(Kenneth R. Ginsberg, http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/119/1/182)
Most of us have a good understanding of the importance of play in our children’s lives. We look at the opportunities that we can present them with. We hear the generations above us groan about kids being kept indoors, playing endlessly at video games and watching rubbish on iPads while at the same time managing to do Dancing on Monday, Choir on Tuesday, Art on Wednesday, Spanish on Thursday, Football on a Friday night and then Mindful-tots on a Saturday morning. So our kids are either doing too much or not enough??
Ginsberg talks about both of these things in his article and tells us that Parents are being fed ‘carefully marketed messages’ that children need every chance to be their best through parents buying a variety of toys and materials and making sure their children go to a range of activitities. Parents are not only being told that this is good for their child, they are also being told that this is the definition of a good parent.
It’s hard though, to work out what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and ‘good’ and ‘bad’. After all we are all new to it. We’ve not done it before. We’re sleep deprived. It seems to be working for others and don’t get me wrong some children do completely thrive in a bustling week. These classes are structured and adult led. There is normally no element of free play. The kind where kids play shop, or mermaids. Or have an afternoon tea party with their teddies or get to be the fastest footballer on the planet or the bravest explorer.
Free play that is child driven is essential to the development of negotiation skills and an opportunity for children to discover what they are interested in. For many adults, play is something done by those mini adults that walk around copying every gesture, phrase or grimace that we do. Play seems hard. We know all the rules. We have all the answers. We have pressures on our time to keep the ship running smoothly. We have an idea and we suggest it to our children and then what?
We all just have to be careful about why we are setting up activities for our children. What might we be missing out on by keeping everyone busy and on the move. Our children need it yes, but we, the parents need it too. We need time to learn about our children’s likes and dislikes, we need to learn how to socialise and share and negotiate. We need time to cool off and unwind. Our children need to see us do this so that they do it too. Finding our love and comfort in free play is as necessary for our children to witness, as our children doing it in the first place. Our kids won’t see the point in it if we don’t.
So playing? Playing is more than stuff for kids. We need to let our children play freely and get on board with them. Let them decide the rules. If you’re not sure what that entirely means, I want to take you back in time to the late 80s in the Goodman household. There we all are: Big sister (7), big brother (5) and I (3) in the fun loving hands of our favourite babysitter -Wendy. We are wearing a rainbow of shell suits. We’d just finished watching the Never Ending Story on BBC 2.
Big Sister: Let's play a game. Big Brother: Yeah, let's play a game. Me: I know a game. Big Sister: Really? Me: Yeah. Big Brother: Bet you don't. Me: I do. Big Brother: No, you don't. Me: Yes, I do. Big Brother: No. Me: Yes. Big Sister: What is it then? Me: Kangaroo Big Sister: What's the rules? Me: Whoever jumps the highest wins. Big Brother and Big Sister exchange a look. Big Brother: Fine. I'll go first. He jumps. Big Sister jumps. I climb on the sofa. Big Sister: WHAT ARE YOU DOING? YOU CHEATER!! Me: I never said that I couldn't jump off something. Big Brother: Fine then, I will jump off this chair. And be higher then you. Me: NO. Big Sister: What? Why not? Me: THOSE AREN'T THE RULES. Big Sister: What? Those are different rules for you then us. Me: Yup. Big Brother: Well that's not fair. Me: (With as much 3 year old sass as I can muster) Well, its MY game. So it's MY rules. Big Sister: Then I'm not playing. Big Brother and Big Sister leave
As irritating as this must have been for my older siblings (they have never let me live this one down), that is what child led play would look like. Let your child invent new stories where there is the same line about a big fat pig running down your trousers in every other sentence. In fact, encourage it. Get them to tell you how things work. Enjoy them sticking 23 dinosaur stickers in exactly the same position, or pour out the glue so the paper disappears. This is them playing. Hang out with them and accept what they are offering. The world that will open up for you both will be a truly magical one. One where a golden unicorn gets to Salsa.
Felicity Goodman in a Voice Teacher, Playologist and Storyteller in Manchester, U.K. To find out more about her work please visit felicitygoodman.co.uk