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Play: A Child’s Work

At my parenting seminars I am often asked about how much time school-aged children should have to play each day.  The common issue seems to be afterschool activities and homework leave very little time for anything else.  My answer is always the same…

I believe play is the single most important activity for children to engage in, each and every day, for at least one hour.  The research evidence is overwhelming in documenting the power of play for children’s emotional wellbeing, social development and academic achievement.

Here are my five top reasons why you should be scheduling play into your child’s day, before anything else.

Allows children to wind down and recharge
Children, like adults, need to be given time to unwind after their ‘work day’.  At school they spend at least six hours paying attention to their teachers instructions, concentrating on completing tasks, problem solving to complete their work, holding back natural impulses to play, and communicating their intentions to both adults and peers.  It is no wonder they come home exhausted, hungry, uncommunicative, and reluctant to start their homework the moment they have walked through the door.

Providing some unstructured time where they can play independently with their toys ensures children get their much-needed ‘wind-down’ time, equivalent to our ‘cup of tea and take the weight off our feet’ time.  This allows them to recharge their batteries, leaving them ready to tackle anything.

Work through any unresolved issues of the day
Children ‘bring their work home’ from school in the form of unresolved friendship issues, and play helps them to work through these issues.  Have you ever witnessed your child using their toys to act out an argument they had with a friend, role-play a classroom scene, use their super powers to defeat baddies, or take their frustrations out on their sibling’s building blocks, jigsaw or anything else to hand?

Play opens up so many opportunities for us to connect with our children and talk through their anxieties in ways, which feel more natural than a formal sit down and chat about their day.  Children also feel much less under the glare of a spotlight when we talk to them whilst playing, making them much more open.  Together you can work through issues and discuss possible solutions, leaving your child feeling more confident; knowing you are there for them when they need you.

Teaches social skills
When playing alongside others children learn valuable social skills first hand, which would be much more difficult to teach in isolation.  Deciding on what to play requires negotiation skills, board games promote turn taking, role-playing games need cooperation, and sharing your favourite toys encourages compromise.

Play teaches children to be mindful of the feelings of others, which fosters emotional intelligence.  Emotionally intelligent children have better peer relationships and fair better academically, which is what we all want isn’t it?

Enables children to experience risk and develop resilience
Through imaginative play children lose themselves in their fantasy characters.  An anxious child loses all inhibitions when they are slaying dragons, teaching their pupils, caring for poorly animals, or saving the universe with their super powers.  Encouraging children to climb trees, build dens, and put on shows for their friends and family all provide children with much needed opportunities to take risks and work outside their comfort zones. Kitchen discos are also a great place to lose all self-consciousness and get active.

Play is a child’s work and their way of trying out new skills, whilst perfecting others.  Providing props and unstructured time is essential to ignite their imagination and develop their creativity.  A packaging box is so exciting because it can be a pirate ship, a space rocket, a magical kingdom or the entrance to another world.

Provides an opportunity to try new skills without fear of failure
When children play they are constantly learning new skills, which can then be generalised to other areas of their life.  Playing with building blocks provides an understanding of spatial awareness, promotes a sense of creativity, and teaches mathematical concepts of symmetry, shape and geometry.  Kicking a ball around in the garden teaches coordination and balance skills, promotes muscle strength, and the use of their senses to orient themselves around their world.

Children learn so much more through play because there is no fear of failure, blocks fall down when you stack them too high, not all kicks of the football result in a goal, we don’t always win the game of snakes and ladders, and so on.  Structured play can also be used to help children who are struggling in specific areas at school.  Word puzzles are much more fun than spellings, dot to dot games are much more engaging than times-tables, making a scrapbook builds on literacy skills without the essay writing.  The possibilities are endless.

So why not have another look at your child’s schedule this week and block out their one-hour playtime.  With all these benefits you won’t regret it.

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