Since 1992 we've been providing extraordinary opportunities for families to play and learn together in our hands-on children's museum in Halifax, West Yorkshire. In that time, more than 5.5 million visitors to Eureka! have experienced first-hand the power of learning through play and the wider benefits of sharing this time together. Thousands more have participated in Eureka!'s outreach programmes and touring exhibitions which are based on the same principles of playful learning that underly the museum experience.
And now, as we celebrate 20 years of play and learning, we want to go one step further by getting families and children throughout the UK playing together anywhere, at anytime. To achieve this we've created Play 20, a web-based resource filled with playful ideas to get you started.
By pretending to be someone else, children develop empathy and understanding and build trust as well as personal coping skills.Through play, children build relationships with one other and the adults who play alongside them - they develop friendships and gain a sense of belonging. Play offers choice, control and freedom within reasonable boundaries and thus helps children develop socially, emotionally, physically and intellectually.
Although children don't realise that they're learning when they play, they are in fact developing essential problem-solving skills and fundamental learning strategies that lay the groundwork for more formal educational experiences. By linking playful learning experiences to what they're taught in the classroom, children develop a fuller understanding of specific concepts and principles.
So what's in it for adults?
For parents, grandparents and carers there is no better way to learn about your children than to play with them. Every child is a unique individual with their own special styles of learning and ways of looking at the world, and the more you understand about this the more prepared you will be to support them in their everyday lives. Strong relationships grow and flourish when families play together and these bonds are enormously important in the face of life's ups and downs.
But beyond the parent/child relationship there are substantial benefits for any adult who is able to let go of their "serious grownup" role for a short time to reacquaint themselves with the sheer joy of playing. For most adults, taking time to play feels like an interruption from "real" work and life rather than a legitimate and productive way to spend time.
When we do allow ourselves some playtime it is usually directed toward sport or other structured activities, and although the physical and emotional release that accompanies sport is beneficial, its competitive nature can diminish the unbridled pleasure we feel during free and spontaneous play.
As a child growing up in south western Ontario, the Canadian winter offered endless opportunities for playing happily in the snow over a period of several months. But as the realities of adulthood slowly took over, the pleasures of winter retreated into the background and snow became a necessary evil, something to brush annoyingly off the car and trudge through on the way to work.
Several years later, having my own children provided me with the opportunity to retrace my own childhood footprints step by snowy step as they grew up. Building snow forts, making snow angels and having a good old-fashioned family snowball fight not only brought back a flood of happy memories but also reminded me how much fun it can be to have a really good play.
According to Dr. Stuart Brown, a leading American play expert, play is a basic biological drive as integral to our health and functioning as sleep or nutrition, and it stays with us throughout our lives. When we play, we open to possibility and the sparks of new insight and thought; play fuels our creativity and paves the way to personal fulfilment.
Why aren't we playing with our children?
With all these benefits for the entire family, why aren't we playing with our children? A survey of Eureka! visitors conducted in December 2011 showed that many parents found themselves making excuses when asked to play by their children. Eighty per cent of respondents admitted to making some kind of excuse, with just under 49% saying that household chores, such as cooking and cleaning, got in the way of play. Work or study pressures prevented play for 40%, whilst 16 % were simply too tired to play.
Recent reports by other charities such as Unicef and The Children's Society, have shown that parents and children are often distracted by technology, and have forgotten some of the simple pleasures of playing together.
Some of today's adults feel they have lost the knack of playing creatively with their children using whatever is at hand, be it cardboard boxes, twigs and leaves in the park, or simply their imaginations while sitting in a waiting room. This is reinforced by Eureka! visitors, who indicate that they are short of ideas and inspiration with just under 72% saying that they would like to have some kind of help with ideas to instigate play with their children. This is where Play 20 comes in: by providing quick and simple ideas for busy mums, dads, guardians and carers, Play 20 will become a powerful tool to help families rediscover the joy of playing together.
Already endorsed by MumsNet and Family Lives, Play 20 forms the cornerstone of Eureka!'s agenda to remind parents that play is not only simple and enjoyable, but can take place at anytime of the day and virtually anywhere.
Spurred on by 20 years of success at Eureka!, we think it's vitally important to extend our learning through play experience into the home, the garden, the car journey, virtually everywhere, making it accessible not only to our visitors but also to the many families throughout the UK who haven't had an opportunity to come to Eureka!
Through Play 20 we will help adults across the country discover the benefits of playing with their children each and every day, while at the same time rediscovering the joys of play they experienced when they were children themselves. Play bubbles up naturally in children and by letting down their guard for a few moments and following their children's lead, adults will soon find themselves developing a healthy play habit. In no time at all, and with the help of Play 20 resources, the tables will turn and Mum and Dad will soon find themselves asking their children to come play with them... no excuses allowed!