Why We Need to be Serious About Play

Play is not all fun and games - in terms of your child's development it's a serious business, and one you should be monitoring to make sure time and space is available to your child to explore the world his or her way.
Why We Need to be Serious About Play
By David Westley
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Parents of young children are constantly reminded of their offspring’s instinctive need to play. Any opportunity will do – mealtimes, bath time and (heartbreakingly to the sleep deprived parent) bedtime can all become elaborate role play or physical games.

Early Years Educationalists have long recognised that play is an essential component of every aspect of child development. Play helps children to model and work through emotional changes and challenges, to develop their cognitive skills and to improve their language and communication. Physical play is vital to the formation of good fine and gross motor skills.

So what happens when children can’t play?

A child deprived of play is a child deprived of an essential, fundamental part of childhood. Children who are unable to play in short stints may become irritable and display behaviour that is difficult to manage. We have all experienced children desperate to let off steam and seen how their behaviour (eventually!) calms once surrounded by other kids or given free rein to run wild.

However, children who are unable to play for long chunks of their formative years may experience more profound consequences, long into adulthood, with some academics even attributing the rise in obesity and childhood depression to play deprivation (see this article on play deprivation for more information). Play is vital to producing well rounded and balanced adults - as George Bernard Shaw said

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing”.


Does this generation play less than other generations?
Many parents will have fond memories of long, happy hours of largely unsupervised play as children.

Whilst rose tinted spectacles are perhaps just that, it is true that many children today are not given the same freedoms that previous generations enjoyed. Concerns over safety see many parents limiting free time outside and a dependence on cars to get around leave children reliant on parents for transport for far longer than we might remember.

On top of this, children’s lives have become more structured and scheduled, with parents trying to fit in an array of wholesome and enriching after school activities. Add in homework from an early age and we have perfect conditions for children who are simply too busy to play.


Screen time and play
There’s little doubt that children love screen time and that every minute spent sat watching a screen is a minute less involved in physical or sociable play. In addition, too much screen time can make it hard for children to sleep, create attention and concentration difficulties and increase the risk of childhood obesity. Today’s parents will all recognise the epic struggle to extract a child who is glued to an ipad or the TV!


Life in the UAE and play
The UAE is in many ways an incredibly child friendly country. In the cooler months families have many beautiful parks and beaches in which to spend their leisure time, but when they weather heats up giving children ample opportunity to play and be active can be challenging.

Whilst there are plenty of indoor play areas and organised activities, these can be an expensive on top of already high school fees. More than that, play centres and organised activities don’t really allow for creative free play – all the ideas and agenda have been created by adults!

With many UAE families having two working parents, a reliance on maids and nannies for supervision can also mean that children have very little time to develop independence and self-reliance through play.


Play in Nurseries – what to look for
Effective, well organised childcare can be an excellent way of ensuring your children get great play time every day. A day in a high quality nursery revolves entirely around play, with a balance between child led and adult led pursuits.

Staff need to create engaging activities that inspire children to play in their own way with minimal adult intervention. Activities might have some learning goals, but these should only be obvious to adults, and if children want to use the activity to play in a different way, this should not be discouraged. Ideally, children will have lengthy periods of uninterrupted (but well supervised!) free play.

Even the more academic aspects of early learning can be delivered through playful activities. For example, a Mathematics lesson in a nursery might see children creating numbers or shapes in Play-Doh, counting interesting items or their own steps and singing number or colour songs. Thoughtful teachers will plan learning that feels and looks very much like gently led play. Ask your nursery how they deliver phonics, literacy and mathematics and try to evaluate how well they provide these through the medium of play.

Lastly, a well-equipped nursery is one that offers lots of opportunity for role play – children learn so much by mimicking adult environments and interactions. Parents should look for play houses, kitchens, shops, cars, trains and a wide variety of dressing up outfits.

Next week, we look at the Outdoor Play and examine how nurseries can help our children to discover a love of the great outdoors.


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