We need to let our children play

If you have been reading my weekly article and following the work we do, then you will know I’m a massive fan of play.
Play just isn’t for children, as the adults who attend my ‘Healthy Body, Healthy Mind’ class will confirm, it’s for all of us – but we need to ensure that our children are getting enough time and opportunity to explore play. 
You may be thinking, “Gary, give it a break with the whole play idea!” But, I’m sorry to disappoint you, I won’t be doing that any time soon.
We live in a society not facing an obesity epidemic anymore, we are actually in it. Add to that the increased use of social media and electronic devices, plus the worrying increase of mental health illnesses and suicide rates among people of all ages, especially our youth.  
Giving children the opportunity and environment to play will not solve all these issues but it can definitely make an impact on a child’s overall development. Play just doesn’t keep kids fit, active and tire them out. It helps boost their language development, problem solving, risk management, independent learning and social integration skills.
Read that last sentence again. These are just some of the benefits of play, no single article, research or guidelines could do justice to the many factors that impact on children’s play. Unfortunately, we have to help guide our kids, and ourselves for that matter, towards play and, more importantly, enjoying it.
What is play?
Play Scotland, who aim to deliver children and young people the right to play, describe play as “the universal language of childhood. It is through play that children understand each other and make sense of the world around them”. Play can also be defined as “engaging in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose”. It can be playing with toys, painting, making mud cakes, playing superheroes, dressing up or climbing trees… anything that is a fun and engaging activity!
Where did we lose play?
Where did we lose the ability to engage in play? iPads and phones are the first – and easiest – thing to blame. Yes, they play a major part but it’s a lot more than that.
Many societal changes can have an impact on how much our children play. There are more single parent homes, families working two or three jobs in order to stay afloat or to ‘keep up with the Joneses’. We may have more income but we are time and energy poor, so much so that we sometimes don’t have the energy to play with our kids or set them in an environment where they can explore and play themselves.
We are always connected to our work emails or can be contacted 24/7. We live in a world where we think we must reply instantly.
Space is also becoming an issue in some areas. Fields are being replaced by houses, trees are being cut down to make more room for more buildings.
Current society has also made us feel unsafe. We feel that we can’t let our kids explore further than the back garden or end of the street. When we do get children to engage in play it may not be enough to stimulate them. The instant satisfaction and reward they receive from computer games and apps is hard for their imagination to compete with.  
How can we reintroduce or increase play?
Like most things I would start with awareness. Are you aware of how much real quality play time your child is getting? Are you setting a positive environment for them to explore and use their imagination through play?
There is no correct amount of time or type of play your child should follow. Each child is different but what we must do is give them as much opportunity to explore and try all different types of play.
Do they have a toy room or certain play area where toys are easily accessed? They can still be tidied away and it is something we can teach our kids through play time. When was the last time they played outside? What did they play? How many different environments did they play in? The back garden, the toy room, swimming pool, the park or forest, even a big field. Placing children in different environments means they must explore their imagination more and are developing their physical literacy (which I wrote about a few weeks back). It is like laying the foundations for their overall development.
Once we are aware and have given children the environment to play in, then we must let them play. Don’t feel that you have to teach them anything here at all. Give them the time and space to explore, come up with their own games or ways of doing things. If you know a better way, keep it to yourself. We think we have to show kids how to kick a ball the ‘right’ way, build a tower with a bigger base, use blue when painting the sky. I’ll say it again – let them explore and, even better, let them fail, then you can guide them by asking questions like “Are you happy with it that way?” or “Is there a different way you could do that?”
If they are happy with what they did, even if you think it’s wrong, then great. Of course there are exceptions when children misbehave through play and you have set rules and guidelines to follow. Other times it’s great for adults to get stuck right in there and play with their kids. This is the fun part, it also helps build deeper connections between parents and children. 
You don’t have to overcomplicate this or spend massive amounts of money. Role play with your child, be the villain, be superheroes, dress up as Anna and Elsa from Disney’s Frozen, be pirates, play Star Wars, make spyglasses from toilet roll, tie a string to a plastic bag and fly a kite. The ideas are endless and if you are stuck just Google some more.
So set the right environment, let your kids explore and, finally, get involved. Changing the world and developing your child through play can be quite fun!

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