Is child’s play just for children?

October 26, 2012

Over the last few months I have become increasingly interested in the issue of the loss of freedom in childhood today;  the lack of free play children engage in due to the rise of screen technology, the trend towards over-scheduling children into organised classes and activities, the introduction of homework in primary schools, an increase in traffic, and an increased fear of ‘stranger danger’. By free play, I mean children playing imaginatively and creatively, without adult supervision and direction, with each other or independently, and without the use of screens. I have written more about this here and here.

My conclusion is that this type of play is of vital importance to children and needs to be promoted, facilitated, and preserved. This is something I’ve started to feel increasingly strongly about.

Also of vital importance, however, is spending time with our children. Yes, we need to give them space, but there’s a balance to be struck here. A recent study reports shocking numbers of children saying that they wished they could spend more time with their parents, and shocking numbers of parents admitting to spending shockingly little time giving their children their full attention, and somehow I suspect that this is not due to the children spending too much time engaged in free play.

There are many different ways to spend time with our children. We can engage in activities like baking or cooking together, reading, or playing board games. But whilst these things all have their value, they can be quite restrictive, controlled and adult led. A more free, child-led play, however, has a special quality. When we play with children we are joining them in their world, meeting them at their level, on their territory. The value and benefits of simply playing together cannot be over-estimated.

Get to know you

One of the many ways I feel play benefits my relationship with my child is that it enables me to learn more about him, especially now that he’s at school and spending more hours away from me, but even before a child begins school, there is a lot going on in their heads that may surprise us, and playing can give us some real insight.

Imaginative, make-believe, role-play based games can be really fascinating. If I let my child come up with the ideas and lead the way I can learn what has made an impression on him, what has been going on at school, and what he is needing to process and is trying to understand. Play is a great way for me to help him do this. Play can help him work through issues, things that might have upset him, that he’s struggling to come to terms with. We can re-enact things like going to the doctor, or getting hurt in the playground.

Get rough

Rough and tumble is important play particularly for boys who use this type of play to bond with each other and play out aggression. For parents who find this type of play worrying, what better solution than to practice with your child? We can help teach them some basic rules and to figure out their own strength, and when they need to hold back or stop. Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D, author of the fantastic book, Playful Parenting, has also co-authored a whole book on this one topic, The Art of Roughhousing.  In it he writes;

“Roughhousing is play that flows with spontaneity, improvisation, and joy. It is free from worries about how we look or how much time is passing. It is physical, and it promotes physical fitness, release of tension, and well-being. Roughhousing is interactive, so it builds close connections between children and parents, especially as we get down on the floor and join them in their world of exuberance and imagination.”

Get some therapy

Play can even be used to help children with particular problems they might be having, as play therapists around the world will attest. Maybe your child needs a little bit of extra nurture, reassurance of their value and your love. Maybe they need some help giving up a little control, or practice following instructions or taking turns.

For more on this, see my previous post on Theraplay.

The single most valuable aspect of playing with our children though is simply bonding and connecting. Staying connected with our children is essential for successful parenting, and playing with them is one of the best ways to achieve this. Putting the household chores and everything else aside and giving a child our undivided attention also tells them how special and important they are to us. Just half an hour a day can make a world of difference.  Sure, kids need space, they need free play without adults muscling in or hovering, and they need to be able to play independently too, but the value and benefit, indeed, in my opinion, the necessity of playing with our children should not be forgotten.

Helicopter parenting

January 25, 2012

I fairly recently came across this term in a newspaper article and must admit I liked it.  I might be a bit slow – maybe it’s been around for a long time already – but I’ve never heard anyone use it, or seen it before. I think perhaps it’s used more in the States.

However, I more recently read part of a forum thread on Mumsnet in which someone had asked what the term meant.  Answers ranged from parents who are constantly phoning their son or daughter’s university to complain about something or argue about grades, to parents who follow their child up into the structures at soft play centres.  I felt slightly affronted by this latter example.  I have frequently been seen at the top of soft play structures.  Do people think I’m a helicopter parent?! (actually, it was always either climb into the structure with child or put up with him doing some helicoptering of his own – around me at my table with my unread magazine).

So I guess the term can be whatever you interpret it to be.

I think the first thing that comes to my mind is over-protective parents.  Not just in terms protecting children from physical harm, but also wanting to protect them from, well, everything.  Parents who are constantly stepping in and interfering with children’s play – trying to settle all their differences for them, trying to direct the play too much, not just letting them get on with it.  Of course, younger children especially, often do need the help of an adult, but often they don’t.

Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D. gives some excellent tips on when and how it may be necessary to step in, in his book, “Playful Parenting“. He also quotes Jeffrey Trawick-Smith;

“Children need to get into arguments to learn how to resolve them; they must be excluded from groups to learn play group entry skills. They must play with disagreeable peers and bullies to broaden their repertoire of social strategies. They must have play ideas rejected so they can learn to become persuasive. When adults intervene too quickly in conflict, these opportunities are lost.”

I think this type of over-protectiveness stems from our, well, protectiveness; a natural feeling for a parent to have towards their child.  But I think it also comes from a lack of faith in children’s abilities, and often in their intentions.

But as well as basic over-protectiveness, the term ‘helicopter parenting’ also brings to my mind a type of parenting that seeks to exert what I see as excessive control over a child.  Maybe it’s a genuine wish to keep them from physical harm, but often I suspect it’s more about keeping them clean, for example, or just quiet. I am frequently in a situation where I hear other children being told not to do something that I am allowing my child to do.  Play fighting and wrestling is the most common, but also things like climbing on a wall, having a pillow fight, splashing in puddles, walking through or playing with mud, piling bark chippings on the bottom of the slide (I actually take some secret pleasure in allowing my child to do this and pretending not to notice the the disgust on the face of the mother of the little girl in the pretty white dress at the top of the slide).  I make no apology.  Children’s business is to play. They learn through play, explore the world through play, learn to be safe through taking risks, find their limits.

On the safety issue, Cohen writes;

“Children have very good judgement when they are allowed to use it, but often they haven’t gotten much of a chance, since we are always telling them what they should or shouldn’t do. Most of us worry much more about danger than we need to, especially if we are going to be right there playing with them…..Of course, as parents, part of our job is to pay attention to basic safety, but sometimes we use safety as a good excuse for our own insecurities and inhibitions.”

But is helicopter parenting a modern phenomenon or just a modern term?  What does the term ‘helicopter parenting’ mean to you?