We live in a world that celebrates busy as a sign of status and success. This may work for adults but it goes against what nature intended for children. One of the casualties of our too busy world is that children are loosing the time to play, freely and independently with no pre-set task or adult directed agenda. Free play is the life blood of healthy, happy development. If we think of play merely as a way of passing time we underestimate how important it is for children to learn to think for themselves. I am a supporter of the Slow Childhood movement because once we allow children to slow down we leave room for play to take off and for children to discover so much for themselves.
Recently I saw headlines that said “it’s good for your child to get bored” my heart sank but I knew what they were getting at. It is not boredom that is important but the freedom to learn to manage your time successfully and with imagination. So I’m not convinced that pressing the parental panic buttons helps develop the case for play. These parental fears are very powerful:
- My child must not waste time
- My child must be learning something useful
- My child must not be unhappy or bored.
It would have been so much better to talk about the gains from free time, so here are my 10 important reasons why a slow childhood, with time to play, will not be a childhood wasted.
Play is not just a way of passing time it is the engine and power house of child development which is special for 10 important reasons
- Our unique ability as humans to think and reflect drives us to explore and make sense of the world in our own way and our own time. Play gives a child the opportunity to follow their own line of reason to see where it takes them. Even small children show the emerging signs of a scientific mind which tests and experiments. If we look at the lives of scientists, inventors, and artists we see that playful experimentation is what “creates” their major breakthroughs
- Play is exciting and absorbing and results in deep concentration. Learning to concentrate emerges from play experiences as a pleasant side effect. Limited uninterrupted play is likely to create children who struggle to focus in or maintain concentration
- Play reduces stress by helping children feel comfortable and in control. “I can do what I want and need to do” Children typically have much less freedom than a generation ago which makes them tense. I believe that some of the rise in behaviour problems is linked to this limited opportunity to gain satisfaction and achievement through play.
- Play may start with a spontaneous idea, but it quickly becomes planned and self-managing. What shall I do now? Where shall I take this next? Psychologists call this ability to plan and oversee a work in progress Executive Function. This important cognitive skill is the foundation for effective learning and children who develop and maintain this skill through play tend to also be successful in education as they are skilled and self-motivated learners
- Self-motivation is vitally important as children make their way through school. Children who have learnt this skill through play can transfer it to their classroom learning.
- Being creative emerges through play, using what is available now or available in your head to make something new out of the familiar. Creativity is seeing the world in a new and different way. Play is the ideal apprenticeship for creativity. Recently Sally Goddard Blythe suggested that children’s imaginations would be better stimulated with a small play kit costing £6 than a playroom http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2191243/How-child-happy-6-worth-toys-Youngsters-better-odds-ends-expensive-gadgets.html
- Avoiding over load: when we are busy with too much to do here and now our brain looses its creativity. The areas of the brain which manage our most precious capacity of reflection and imagination are switched off when we are engaged with a task. The imagination needs space to work its magic. That’s why our best ideas pop into our heads on a walk or in the bath. If we over schedule children they don’t have time to dream.
- Discovering and using your strengths: children will naturally gravitate to what appeals to them. They discover through the freedom to experiment what works well for them at a practical level and what gives them emotional satisfaction.
- Play is fun and makes us happy: if you think back to your childhood what are your treasured memories? Are you winning prizes? Being given expensive presents? Maybe you remember a special toy fondly or the time you went on an adventure in the woods or built a den. Children value their achievements and what makes them feel competent is not just what they learn in school but what they do for themselves. That’s why children want to keep models they’ve made or have their art displayed at home.
- Play makes practice fun: if you have something to learn you need to rehearse it and repeat important steps many, many times for the skill to develop. Play is the perfect system for practice. Watch how happy children are to repeat things which interest them. This experience is vital for children to recognise and accept the importance of practice in other areas of learning.
Now that children are back at school and long cold nights are upon us how can you help your child to have time to chill out and play?
Jeni Hooper is a Child and Educational Psychologist specialising in helping children to find their best selves and to flourish. Her book What Children need to be Happy, Confident and Successful: Step by Step Positive Psychology to Help Children Flourish is published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers and can be viewed here http://www.amazon.co.uk/What-Children-Happy-Confident-Successful/dp/1849052395/ref=tmm_pap_title_0