What’s the Big Deal about Play?

Are you confused by all the hype around play? Is it something you see as important for your kids?  Do you understand what all the carry on is about, all the different fancy names: Nature play, Loose parts play, Imaginative play, Parallel play?  Does it feel a big jarony (spell check totally  thinks I made that word up) for kids doing what kids do?

In the early childhood circles Play has been THE major topic of training and development and information gathering for decades, the meaning, the value, the impact on children who don’t experience it, different forms of it and last night I attended another session devoted to it titled “Play Grows Brains”. The presenter, Robyn Munroe Miller has worked internationally exploring the child’s right to play as written in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.  The small crowd was taken on a journey, which was thought provoking and I was curious as to why the room had only professionals in attendance and no parents, other than those of us who are both. The session was well promoted, easily accessible in comfortable space and FREE.

So why is it professionals continue to be interested and parents, not so much? I attach no judgement to the parents not in the room, I am sure there are a multitude of reasons why individuals didn’t attend, even as simple as leaving your warm house on a Winter’s night in Mount Gambier is not so appealing.  I get it, but I wonder if there is still more to it. Why is there a disconnect between what professional value and parents value for children?

Research shows just how fundamental to our development play is and has there ever been a parent who hasn’t demanded of their child who is under foot...”just go and play!!!” I wonder if parents motivation for it is different from professionals?

Teachers and early childhood workers have needed to justify encouraging play to a hierarchy that seems determined to squash it out under NAPLAN or STEM priorities. They work very hard to show just how all the vital skills and learnings are developed through play activities, even calling it Play Based Learning, so they receive fewer challenges!

For parents, it seems, play is more of a “go and occupy yourself” activity, while I get on with my jobs.

Robyn spoke about article 31, which in part says

“that every child has the right to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.”

If Play is enshrined in such an important document, could it be that there is much more value than just, go busy yourself, while I get on with important things?

To clarify, play is not just about organised sport, although we play a game. It is more around the cubby and fort making.  The club houses we build, the rules made up as we go, about how the play is developed, the deciding who goes first, the rough and tumble.  Play is freely chosen and should mostly be FUN!!

I have seen so many parents forgetting to just have fun and enjoy the silliness and freedoms childhood can bring to just be and I am guilty of this too.  What did you learn from playing; problem solving, negotiating, turn taking, sharing, empathy, resistance, standing up for yourself, trying on what it feels like to be someone or something else? By no means is this list exhaustive.

I think back with some embarrassment now to times when my girls asked me to come and play and far too often my response was, “in a minute…, or I just need to finish…or, I just don’t have time right now…” So many times, the important list of things I needed to get done before I found the time to play, didn’t get done, so my involvement with playtime happened less often that it should have.

I wonder if that’s why grandparents are often more relaxed with their grandchildren than they were with their children, they understand the difference between what is important and what isn’t, as parents we are still learning it.

Another consideration is do we give our children equal access to play? So often I see girls in gorgeous dresses, they look so cute but are totally impractical for fun and being able to play freely without fear that mum will crack it about how dirty they are! Boys are almost entitled to get dirty, have grass stains and holes in their knees, but we encourage our girls to stay neat, tidy, pretty and clean…Do we really want our girls to stand back and watch the fun or do we want them to participate fully and throw themselves into every aspect of play?

Robyn highlighted to concerns and health implications that are starting to surface for children who don’t experience play, including anxiety and depression in children by 8 years of age.  In the USA, prisoners are entitled to spend 2 hours per day outside, the average child is experiencing 1 hour per day. In Australia, we have a disturbing pattern of following in our US friend’s footsteps, let’s hope this isn’t a path we go down.

A final significant take away from last night’s session; a study was done on mass murders and the one thing they had in common…as children, they didn’t play!  So, if nothing else convinces you how important play is…if you don’t want to raise a mass murderer, make sure your children get outside and PLAY!!