Remember ME - You Me and Dementia

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The importance of play time

MOST parents don't need to be told that their kids need time to play. It seems obvious to say that kids need time to simply be themselves -- and, yet, increased academic pressures, changing family set-ups and the fast pace of modern living have all placed an enormous strain on the time we spend with our kids -- and how we fill it.

During the 1980s, experts began to move away from the idea that play was useful for a child's development.

Play became something frivolous, from which children learnt little. Parents started talking about 'too much playtime', and school curriculums became more goal-oriented.

Now, parents and teachers are returning to the notion that play is a powerful tool that helps children to socialise, interact with the world around them and acquire vital coping skills.

It is, says the famous Swiss child psychologist Jean Piaget, a child's work.

Research published this week by IPPA, the Early Childhood Association reveals that Irish parents are worried that safety, time and space limitations are preventing our kids from getting enough playtime.

But if we put a little thought into it, there are plenty of ways in which we can ensure that our kids get enough playtime -- and that they're playing in the right way.

"The UK led the way in this," says Irene Gunning, IPPA's chief executive. "They used to have a great understanding of the process of play and believed that play should be thought of as an end in itself.

"But then they developed a curriculum that was outcome-focused where, for example, kids had to be able to count by a certain age.

"When that happens, you stop allowing the child to just play -- and you begin to start teaching. Now they are beginning to go back to their original ideas. We want our children to be ready and eager to learn, but play is so misunderstood."

Psychologist Dr Mark Harrold, author of Parenting and Privilege: Raising Children in an Affluent Society, agrees that play is a vital tool in a child's development, but acknowledges that parents face new challenges in allowing their kids to simply be kids.

"The landscape has changed. Both parents are now out working."

This has intensified the whole experience of parenting, and parents, he argues, feel under pressure to ensure their children are constantly busy doing something -- and that something is usually an 'adult-led', learning-based activity.

"If we're not doing something with them, we feel like we're not being a good parent," says Dr Harrold.

Rushing children from piano practice to gymnastics to swimming lessons -- while obviously beneficial for a child -- can leave them little time to engage in the simple child-centred play that is crucial to development.

And the tightly-structured school curriculum has also edged out imaginative play, argues Dr Harrold.

Modern toys reflect the move away from crucial imaginative play. Most toys designed by toy manfacturers -- and heavily marketed by them -- have a particular play function or in many cases, an educational aspect.

But by offering a child an 'open-ended toy' -- one that the child can use as a prop to stimulate creative play-- parents can open up a whole new world for their youngsters.

Given the opportunity to decide how to use a toy for themselves, children begin to play in a way that is natural to them. "There are lots of opportunities to have open-ended toys in the home," says Irene. "Think about water play in the bath, or up at the sink, once you have the kids safe and are near them.

"Remember when you were little and you made lumps of dough and did your own rolling when your mum was baking...there are great opportunities in the home.

"The marketing experts say to buy this type of toy or that one, and that you're a good parent if you buy this...but any parent knows at heart that those toys that have buttons and lights aren't as good in the same way as an old cardboard box, where kids can have endless fun transforming it into whatever they want."

As the mother of three young children, Carmel Doyle knows the importance of allowing her youngsters enough time to play, and works hard to ensure that they play in the right way.

"Play is power. When my kids play, they are less grumpy, they sleep better and they have better confidence. They love it."

Carmel's family -- husband Gerry and children Jack (5) Tony (3) and Rose (18 months) -- live on a suburban cul-de-sac where the kids have plenty of pals their own age and, as the summer evenings grow longer, spend hours out on the street playing with one another.

As always, safety is the big issue so in order to facilitate the kids to play out of doors, the local parents started up an informal 'play patrol'.

The kids play by themselves, but always with an adult watching from a safe distance to watch out for traffic or 'stranger danger'.

"There is always someone there, but we don't interfere," says Carmel. "Traffic is the big danger, so it's important to get the neighbours used to the fact that the kids own this road, so they have to watch their speed.

"Our kids are outside chasing, skipping or playing hopscotch. They have a den that they made in the garden which they love. At Easter, we had an egg hunt. The kids came into my house while the adults hid the eggs around the road. Then after their hunt, they wanted the adults to come in while they hid the eggs for us!

"One of their favourite things to do is dressing-up. One minute Jack is a pirate, the next he's Buzz Lightyear. Once they're in that 'role play' mode, they can be like that for two or three hours."

Another 'rainy day' activitiy that the children love is good old-fashioned baking, adds Carmel.

"We don't make anything fancy, but things like Spiderman cakes, buns, or when I'm making an apple tartm they can make cookies from the pastry.

"Theres no manual. You have to say, 'let's relax'. Simple things will keep them occupied. My mum gives them bags of clothes pegs and they have endless fun with them, making necklaces and shapes.

"If we think back to when we were small and what we did when adults weren't around, you learnt so much by just managing yourself in those situations and finding out how far you could go," says Irene.

"The sheer pleasure and enjoyment of those old-fashioned games, such as skipping, hopscotch and hide-and-seek, was amazing.

"If we look back to our own childhoods, we can see how much we actually learnt through play," says Carmel.

"Today's business leaders would have learnt lots of their vital skills through games they played.

"When we look at our own kids playing, they are learning great skills for life -- they think beyond themselves. And they have more fun as part of a team.

"The power of children playing with other children is that they develop social skills and learn how to share. Play is as imp-ortant as their homework."

By Liz Kearney


Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.

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