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.

Should we let our children play with guns?

February 22, 2012

Every parent of boys knows it.  They want to play with guns.  You just can’t stop them.  They’ll make guns out of sticks,  lego, bananas, anything really.  Distasteful to adults, do we try to stop it, forbid it, or just go with it?

Before I had a child I would probably have said, forbid it.  Now, I’m not so sure.  After all, they’re just playing.  What’s distasteful to adults is just a bit of harmless fun to a child.  It’s distasteful to us, because we understand what real guns are for, and what death is.  A young child doesn’t.  So my issues with attempting to prevent this type of play are:

1. We are attempting to force our adult perceptions on a child.  Just because we don’t like guns, doesn’t seem to me a good reason to attempt to stop what is clearly quite normal behaviour.  Boys have been playing with guns for centuries.  As long as no-one’s getting hurt, what’s the problem?  I think it’s a bit of a leap to assume that allowing them to play with guns is going to lead to them becoming involved in gun crime later in life.

2. I believe making something forbidden can increase its value in the eyes of a child. Whilst I don’t necessarily want to try to discourage my child from playing with guns, neither do I want to encourage it, and trying to forbid it could well back fire (no pun intended).

3. Children’s play is telling us something.  They express themselves through play, work out issues they have.  Trying to suppress a child’s instincts never works.

Having said all this, I have not yet succumbed to buying a toy gun for my child, but he can imagine all he likes with sticks etc.

Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D., author of Playful Parenting, writes “Pretend guns (the kind you make with your finger or a cardboard tube or a stick) allow children to create games and rules and play out the themes important to them…….On the other hand, toy guns, especially realistic ones, tend to restrict children into playing in very limited ways.”

Of course, guns are not the only type of aggressive play that boys, and girls too, often like to engage in. Wrestling and play fighting is also common, and another area parents often seem uncomfortable with, either because they don’t recognise it as play, don’t like the idea of fighting being allowed – another example of our adult perceptions being applied, or they’re worried someone will get hurt.  I actually really enjoy watching this type of play as children seem to enjoy it so much, and it seems so natural.  It always makes me think of nature programmes on TV showing tiger or bear cubs play fighting.  OK, sometimes someone might end up taking a bit of a bump, but I’ve never seen anyone get seriously hurt.

So are we being over protective?  I think if we watch carefully enough we can learn to quickly distinguish between real and play fighting, and to know when an adult needs to step in if things are getting out of hand.  Too often I think we step in unnecessarily.

Cohen writes of this type of play “They aren’t just practising aggression, they are practising restraint and control as well.”  I think children would really be missing out on some important developmental needs if they were forbidden this type of play. If we’re really worried about it we can always join in!

Cohen goes on to write “I don’t believe you can or should ban all aggressive play. Children need to come to terms with aggression – their own and others’ – and if we don’t let them do it through play, they will do it in real life…..Good creative play….does not make children violent, no matter what kinds of aggressive games they are playing.”

This was first published as a guest post on Free Your Parenting.