Playing is what children do naturally - and what we should encourage them to do at every opportunity.
“Children have an innate need to play; it’s what they’re biologically programmed to do,” says Nicola Butler, chair of the charity Play England. “It’s how humans and all other mammals learn.”
As parents, we might envy the freedom to be totally immersed in play, but this play is essential - it’s how children naturally learn about themselves and the world around them.
Through play, children are constantly honing their skills and increasing their confidence in these four key areas:
Physical - strength, balance, co-ordination, fine motor skills.
Social and emotional - compromise, rules, sharing and taking turns.
Communication and language - vocabulary, expressing emotions, giving and receiving instructions.
Imagination and creativity - the essential ‘let’s pretend’ when children can act out scenes and feelings.
Every time your child is playing, all these essential components will be threaded through their games.
“Play involves children developing skills in using their bodies, promoting strength, co-ordination and agility,” explains a spokesperson for the Pre-School Learning Alliance. “Through play children form relationships, learn how to make friends, be sociable, share and take turn. In this way they develop an understanding of others and learn to feel empathy, responding appropriately to the needs and feelings of others.
“Play involves communication: they learn how to talk, express themselves and listen to others. They are discovering how things work, finding out about different objects or living things, naming and categorising them, as they build knowledge about the material and natural world.
“Most of all, they are using imagination to create possibilities and alternatives, to express their own individuality and represent their thoughts, ideas and knowledge through making up stories, songs or dances,” they conclude.
The role of parents in children’s play
Don’t just watch - play together:
“There’s a golden time between the ages of three and five, as your child learns to have a clearly defined sense of self and before they become increasingly interested in their peers, when your child is entirely receptive to you, so make the most of it,” says psychologist Linda Blair, author of The Happy Child: Everything you need to know to raise enthusiastic, confident children. “Do things you love doing - kids have a radar for that - and it will be doubly fun for you.”
Take your cues from your child, supporting their spontaneity and interests.
Let your child take the lead:
Calm your instinct for control and let your child make their own decisions and choices - what game to play, and how to play it. You can make suggestions or enticing games, but take your lead from your child.
Remember, there is no ‘right”’ way of playing. So what if the railway track could have an extra wiggle or the chosen princess outfit is a mix of fairy dress and bat wings?
It’s great to show your child how a toy or game works but try not to do it for them every time. Children learn and increase in confidence by overcoming obstacles - not by parents removing them all the time.
Give your child space (and time) to play:
“Give them space for messy play - painting, water, sand, play dough, all the play bricks emptied out on the floor - and don’t be too keen to tidy everything away too fast,” says Nicola Butler.
Unstructured, free play is the best type of play for younger children, play experts agree. This is play that isn’t planned or organised by a grown-up, and just happens, depending on what captures your child’s interest and imagination, with no prescribed end result.
Play rough and tumble with your children and give them ample opportunity to get outdoors, let off steam and test their own limits, from going down the ‘scary’ slide to jumping off that wall. Give them specific praise when they do something new.
Try to be fully present with your child when you’re playing together. Of course, you can’t give your undivided attention all the time (food needs cooking, that email needs sending) but do try to make some special times when your child knows they are the centre of the world.
Solo play is important too:
Give your child true downtime, space to daydream or independently play. Children who are used to playing by themselves will encounter little problems - they can’t find something or make something work - but left to their own devices, they will learn to persevere or try a different way. They will become confident in their own ability to sort out a problem - not get upset and run for help at the first opportunity.