Play is as innate in our children as pecking is in chickens. They don’t need us to teach them how to play, just to allow them to do what comes so naturally.
There is concern over this generation of children losing the art of playing, and it’s often presented under two misconceptions: that it is somehow the fault of the children, and that it’s just inevitable - nothing can be done about it. We call WRONG on both.
Our modern children have not lost their play instinct. It is innate, and even in our hyper-scheduled and digital age, you can see the glimpses. Observing children away from screens or organised activities and you’ll see evidence of play urges - throwing, transporting, enclosing, arranging, swinging, transforming. The urges are there, but in many cases are just not there enough. And it’s not the fault of the child.
In order for our children to truly engage in play, they need US to give them three key things:
TIME. Lots of it!
Our children need large blocks of uninterrupted time to play. It’s their one childhood, it’s what they should be doing.
But if their days are made up of transitions, teacher led ‘activities’ and mat times, and their weekends are hyper-scheduled there is so little time leftover. We so often only offer tiny bursts of time in any one place at any one time, and then wonder why our children aren’t concentrating?
Longer spaces of time gives the slower pace that leads to in-depth, settled play. We needn’t worry so much that children will get bored with ‘down time’. They will absolutely learn to fill it in if we gift it to them.
SPACE. Children will have the urge to play no matter where they are, but some spaces allow for true play.
And we’re not meaning playgrounds in the traditional sense (outdoor or indoor), but places with open spaces, open ended objects and elements, somewhere with a bit of variety. We need to set up our ECE spaces for play, and provide so much time in the best playground of all - Nature. Authentic natural settings provide the richest possibilities. We need to be offering these experiences, not cooping children up indoors, in school-like ECE settings, in front of screens, at cafes, or constantly in the car.
TRUST. In the child and in the play.
There are two layers to this. Firstly, we need to trust in the ‘enoughness’ of play. When we see it as something valuable, we’ll provide the time and space for it.
Then we need to trust in our child’s ability to make their fun without our interference. They don’t need us to plan all their play ‘experiences’. They KNOW how to play.
We can trust they can have ideas, try things out, solve problems, manage some risk, all without their dear parents hovering over them. When we realise our children can direct their own play, we see that’s not our role. We’ve said it and we’ll keep saying it. Our adult role in a child’s play is to allow for it.
If we provide those key things, our children will be able to reclaim their right to play. It is not irretrievable. There are concrete, simple steps we can take today to help keep play in our children’s lives, or return to it if it has been lost a little to the world of screens and schedules. The play instinct hasn’t disappeared, but in some children it may be lying dormant. Let’s awaken it!