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Play is a powerful thing

There are times in my, so far brief, experience of home schooling, when I have said to my children, “please will you just go and play for a while.” I think most parents say that at various points in the day, times when you need to get things done or make a phone call or actually just have a break for half an hour. And, if I didn’t know better, this would be something I would feel guilty for. Unstructured time, where my children can do as they please with whatever toys they please…what will people think?!

Fortunately, however, I’m not too bothered what the ‘people’ think, and secondly I have spent my entire career studying and learning about child development and important role that play holds within this. If anything I will be encouraging my children to do this more often.

Play is so greatly undervalued by our society and certainly by policy makers and many of those ‘in charge’ of the education of our children. I was once in a primary school, doing some supply work, and was asked by a fellow teacher what my degree was in, when I said that it was in Early Childhood Studies and Child Development, he scoffed and said “So you’ve got a degree in playing.” I could have argued with his ignorant “I know better than you do” comment, but instead I suggested he looked into the power of play, as that might significantly improve his teaching…and his social skills!

Play is a vital part of what it is to be human and is central to learning, to brain development and to creativity. Without play, our learning is significantly poorer.

I will now ask you to think back to your own childhood for a moment, recall some of your happiest times and your most favourite toys. Recall the sounds you made as you played, the texture of that toy in your hand, the smell of your toy and the colours it was. Stay in that memory, that precious piece of time, hold on to it. That is what it feels like to play.

With that thought in your mind, now come back to the present. Has what you played with as a child influenced, in any way, what you have become as an adult? I can say for certain, that my play as a child absolutely made me who I am now. I used to play “schools” in the shed. My mum painted the shed for me and turned it into a classroom for my toys! I would spend hours calling the register and writing on my chalk board.

My brother was forever playing at taking things apart, finding how they worked, and putting them back together. He is now a plumber and gas engineer.

As adults, play is equally important and we often ‘play’ with ideas in our heads, draw things out, work through things, change things, consider the “what if’s” and come up with new ideas through this process. Big creative companies, such as Google, have now recognised how valuable playfulness is to their work force and design spaces especially for their staff to play and create in.

So when I am ‘teaching’ my children, play is central to everything we do. Structured or unstructured, play is key.

We play with words, we make puppets, we create stories, we build worlds, we animate, and we play with language, with rhymes and with songs. We play scrabble and countdown, and I have to say I have learned more about spelling, vocabulary and the origins of words from these games than I ever learned from spelling tests in school.

We play with numbers and shape and construction. We play shops… my children sell very expensive cucumbers and pizzas! We bake cakes to learn about fractions and weight and about how nice cake is!

We play with music, we make sounds, we sing, we create, we play with paints and colours and textures.

We go outside and play in nature, climbing trees, running, jumping, dancing, going on bear hunts, looking at bugs, building dens and camping in the woods. Play, especially in nature, really engulfs all of your senses.

We play with friends. We chat, we laugh, we run around and create imaginary worlds with these very special people. Play is absolutely key to friendship, it’s not often that I sit down with a friend to solve a quadratic equation, but it is often than I laugh with my friends, go out with my friends, talk to my friends and feel more “human” with my friends.

Play tells us a great deal about ourselves and others, and is a great way for children and adults to express thoughts and feelings. I once did an activity with a group of psychologists, where I asked them all to make paper bag puppets. They all looked at me as if I needed a lot of ‘work’ and immediate psychological attention! However, by the end of the session they were all talking to me via their puppets, and I had learned a lot more about them than I would have done in a formal learning environment.

I’m not suggesting that we spend our entire lives ‘playing’ at things. Sometimes we have to conform and follow certain rules. For example, I wouldn’t want my surgeon to ‘play’ at operating on me, and I wouldn’t want my pilot to ‘play’ at flying the aeroplane! But I can almost certainly guarantee you that throughout their development there would have been elements of play that led them to where they are in their chosen careers.

This is where my struggle with the National Curriculum becomes very apparent to me. There is less and less time in our school day for children to just play. Break times are shorter, children are not allowed to play on the ‘playground’ before school, because apparently this is now a safeguarding issue as staff don’t know who the adults are on the playground.

Instead children are ushered straight into class to get on with serious work such as sitting at desks and reading their books, or maybe solving some maths problems… there’s a nice way to start the day and encourage children to enjoy school.

Children miss parts of their play time if they don’t keep up with their work or they don’t conform to the expected behaviours in class, and this all makes me very sad. Children NEED to play. It is utterly essential to their development. Every classroom across the country is filled with experts in play, let them use their skills, let them use a medium that is completely familiar and natural to them. Let them be children.

Play helps us to develop ideas and thoughts without fear of failure. Play allows us to explore. Play informs us. Play helps us to learn ways to interact with others. Play is a basic human instinct. So please, let your children play.

This blog was originally posted on 13th March 2017 on the old website.

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