11/03/2016 09:32 GMT | Updated 11/03/2017 05:12 GMT

The Poorest Parents Can Give the Best Gift - the Gift of Play

The opening paragraph of my daughter Charlotte's first school report made for entertaining reading: 'Charlotte likes to begin the day by dressing up. Her costume of choice generally includes a pink tutu, a Viking helmet, and a feather boa.' Knowing her sense of fashion at the time, I had to smile, but I also remember thinking I would have preferred a progress report on her aptitude for reading, writing and arithmetic - the things that I considered to be the 'real' business of education.

Mrs McDonell, her teacher, no doubt had a twinkle in her eye as she penned that report. She was a wonderful teacher, colourful and expressive, a true creative with a warm, generous smile and an ample bosom, which provided refuge for many little ones in times of crisis. She loved to encourage the children to use all their senses, to imagine, to create and to play. Each of our children grew to love Mrs McD - she opened up the wonder of creation and the infinite world of the imagination, and taught them the value of an enquiring mind.

Jean Piaget, the Swiss psychologist, was particularly interested in the role of play in child development. He demonstrated that play can be an effective vehicle for children to learn about their world. He would say, 'Play is the work of children.

There are a myriad of ways that children play. Building and demolishing sand castles, dressing up as pirates or princesses, pretend games of schools, shops, hospitals, mummies and daddies, games with dolls, cars, teddies, Lego, or more formal games with rules, all provide fun and enjoyment in themselves. But in addition, each aspect of play provides a relaxed atmosphere where all kinds of learning can occur and an opportunity for social skills to develop. As parents, we would do well to learn from Mrs McD not to have every minute of our child's day programmed for 'learning', but to make time for play, creativity and imagination. We might not feel that we ourselves are the creative type - or even if we were, by the time we became adults the world had knocked it out of us. We can allow our children to lead the way. They are always dreaming. Don't make them stop.

My friend Nicky's children are digital natives; they have every game, gadget and gizmo going. A 42-inch screen stretches across the living room wall, iPads, iPods and iPhones litter the floor. However, when I visited recently, they were ignoring the contents of the Apple store and were engaged in a game of make believe. Apparently they were marooned on a desert island with Robinson Crusoe and had dragged duvets downstairs to make a raft so they could escape. They set about piling tins of beans and tuna onto the raft so they would have provisions for their time at sea.

My friend, seemingly oblivious to the resulting disarray in her kitchen cupboard, offered to swim to the shore to find the life jackets. Halfway across the ocean, she looked up and explained that this was their favourite game. And watching them play, I saw she was right. I reflected that in later life these children will remember this scene. The expensive skateboards and bikes that I passed on my way in and the electronic gadgets strewn across the floor may be fun, but nothing beats an adventure on a raft with a tin of tuna and a tin of beans and Man Friday for company.

It has been said that the poorest parents can give the best gifts - the simple gift of play and imagination.

As parents, we may attempt to buy our children expensive toys, sometimes because we didn't have them ourselves when we were young. But one expert put it well, 'We can be so busy giving our children what we didn't have that we don't have time to give them what we did have.' And that includes the simple gift of play and imagination.

The poorest parents really can give the best gifts.

(Extract taken from If You Forget Everything Else Remember This: Parenting in the Primary Years)