As parents, we ignore the importance of play at our peril. Neuroscientists have discovered that part of the brain is hardwired for play. Creative activity stimulates the frontal lobes of the brain so it is vital that we allow time and space for our children to play. Research with humans and other mammals demonstrates that play can lower stress hormones and help the child become more able to deal with stress when it comes her way.1 The desire to engage with the world, to play and explore is also known as a seeking system by child development experts. This seeking system empowers children to engage with people and places and to have new experiences. Children who are not actively engaged in their life and who are continuously bored have an underactive seeking system, according to Margot Sunderland, author of The Science of Parenting.
Sometimes children need their parents to help activate the seeking system by suggesting new ideas or creating the right environment. In fact, one of the actions that we can take to assist our children is to create a rich environment for imaginative and explorative play.
Enriching the Environment Mary Turner, mother of three, believes that it is her role as a full-time mother to provide inspiration for her children, who are all under six. “I want to give them new places to explore, unusual, beautifully made toys to play with and plenty of friends to interact with. We also make sure that we have ample downtime in our week so that the children can process new ideas and assimilate all that they are learning.” There is no need to spend lots of money to create a special environment for play. A simple tub filled with water in the garden is an enriching experience for a young child. A cardboard box can be turned into myriad different buildings or vehicles. A sandpit provides the setting for a game of cars or a group of toy animals. A child’s powers of fantasy are more readily accessible in a clutter-free space. Toys should have places to live and should be tidied away at the end of the day. It is a useful skill to engage your child in from the beginning. Janet Ehrlich, mother of twin boys, explains, “I have always made tidying up into a game since the boys first started accumulating toys. Now we have a clear away singsong at the end of the day and it’s become a fun and familiar part of our daily routine.” If there are more toys than can be organised in your child’s space,
perhaps some could be packaged into a box to be stored in the loft, or shared with a friend and then rotated. A chid is much more able to play creatively when there is less stimulus around, and fewer toys to get in the way.
Start off with a few ideas and providing objects that have a lot of potential for play. A broom can be used to role-play keeping house, flying over the hilltops or for building a den for example. Kitchen items such as pots and pans, spoons and measuring cups are a good place to start. Add a tray of water or sand and you have a magical play space with no need for expensive manufactured toys. Allow children to find their own way rather than dictating the way that a certain toy is to be played with. And if you are playing a role-play game, step back so that he can explore the game in his own way. Follow the lead of your child and enjoy where it takes you.
How to Help Routine is good for a child but the same unchanging routine day in day out can also contribute to an under active seeking system in your child’s brain, writes Margot Sunderland.2 She believes that new stimuli can help to activate the seeking system. “Make sure that she can play with friends regularly rather than relying on the television for entertainment, make a den using chairs and sheets to play houses, help your child gather and play with natural things,” she enthuses.
It is a good idea to take regular nature walks and to set up a nature table. Explore the outside world through puddle splashing and mud painting. Take a trip to the countryside or the beach to explore new environments.
Get Active One of the reasons why some children find it difficult to play is because they don’t see the adults around them engaged in meaningful activity. Our housework more often than not involves the push of a button these days rather than a rhythmical movement that can be imitated by our children. Folding clothes, washing the windows and sweeping the floors are all activities that young children will watch and want to help out with if we make time for them in our day. Rahina Baldwin Darcy, author of You Are Your Child’s First Teacher explains that this may seem like taking a step back in time and having to squeeze extra work into our already busy schedules but there are benefits. “It may sound quaint, but let me assure you,
it beats having a whiny two-year-old or plugging in another video to get her out of your hair. It’s kind of like the Zen saying of ‘Before enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water. After enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water.’ By becoming conscious of our own activities, by regulating our daily lives in a harmonious rhythmical way – by valuing what we do around our children – we are helping their physical bodies to develop in as healthy a way as possible.”
Choose Toys Carefully Some toys help open a child to the idea of free play. A child is able to develop an idea for play in any direction she wants – the plaything she is enjoying is not prescriptive. It is a good idea to look for these sorts of toys to stimulate your child’s imagination. Toys such as a play scene are a good place to start. Castles, farms and dolls house can come to life with a few figures added. These can help develop creativity in your child as they grow – they may like to make additional furniture or animals from clay and paint them. This sort of play can be enjoyed right up to adolescence as well so a carefully chosen playscape is a good investment. This type of environment can allow children to express emotional issues that are unfolding in their own life. It can help them to process difficult or challenging events. Sally Schweizer, kindergarten teacher and mother of four believes that play has healing benefits, including in conflict zones. “Play can help children escape from troubles. They identify with situations and feel themselves to be managing their own lives. They can relive joys and fears and find healing. In war-zones children re-enact horrors and can cope better: they are in charge and strengthened as they play them out.”
Physical Play Another form of play is the rough and tumble that is so much fun. This sort of play is often sought from fathers and also from peers and siblings and it has been shown to have many benefits for health and wellbeing. Physical playtimes can help to activate the frontal lobes of the brain, which enhance emotion-regulating functions.4 This type of activity has been found to release opiates, promoting a positive emotional state.
As parents of toddlers are all too aware, this age group explores through movement; he has a tremendous amount of energy and expresses himself physically, using his body. Rudolph Steiner explained that there are three systems that influence how our children experience the world and how they learn. From birth to seven years of age, the metabolic/limb system is prevalent and is seen as movement and imitation. At the age of seven, child development is focused on the heart/ lung/rhythm system, which is played out through feeling and imaginative games. From 14 to 21 years old the nerve/sense/ head system rules and this is seen as thinking and analysis in the older child. Rahima Baldwin Darcy believes that understanding the shift in emphasis as the child grows can help parents to meet the needs of the developing child. In the early years a sense of movement is crucial to engaging games. A child builds up his blocks so that he can knock them down again. If we can help create the right environment with the right tools for play it will have untold benefits for our children’s wellbeing as they grow.
EXPLORE Find events taking place near you on National Children’s Day on Sunday 14th May.
READ About National Children’s Day, a Save Childhood Movement Initiative at nationalchildrensdayuk.com
Top Tips for Play and Learning
JUST WATCH Before you do anything else take the time to watch your child at play. Make a mental note of the type of toys they like to play with and the themes and ideas they are interested in. Knowing your child’s play preferences will help you guide their play in ways that they are much more likely to engage with and enjoy. LET THEM CHOOSE Provide toys and games that can be played with in a variety of ways. Toys like building blocks, dressing up clothes, crayons and small world sets allow children to be creative and are good for their development. ALLOW YOUR CHILD TO LEAD Letting your child lead their own play is an excellent way to develop imagination, creativity and thought processes. Hold back from voicing your own ideas! For instance, if they are playing shops, quietly provide a group of safe items from around the home for them to ‘sell’. GIVE THEM TIME When we see our children struggling with puzzles or reasoning toys our natural reaction is to help them. Don’t. Give them plenty of time to play and to think problems through for themselves. CELEBRATE THE JOURNEY Focus on the processes rather than ‘end products’. Children need to know that you have taken time to see and appreciate their creations. It gives them confidence to do more and develop their skills. GET ACTIVE Children’s bodies naturally want to keep moving to help build muscles and co-ordination. And they actually learn more when they are moving as their brains are working at a faster rate. Understand that sedentary play sessions may need to be kept short and sweet. DO IT AGAIN Repetition is important for young children. It helps them confirm their understanding and fine tune their skills. Don’t worry that they are getting bored by doing the same thing several times. If they are bored they’ll move on.