Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The role of Adults in children's play

This post is a recap of two posts I wrote early in 2008. Given the importance of play I thought I would revisit the topic.

1. The importance of play

I mentioned in my first post on play that psychologists, educators and paediatricians see it as so important to optimal child development that it has been recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right of every child.

But in a clinical report to the American Academy of Paediatrics, Kenneth R. Ginsburg concluded, "Many of these children are being raised in an increasingly hurried and pressured style that may limit the protective benefits they would gain from child-driven play."

Major child rearing agencies, early childhood associations, paediatric groups, and government agencies with responsibility for children and families have been raising serious questions about declining spare time, and in particular unstructured playtime for young children. For example, in a recent edition of the Belfast Telegraph a report from 300 teachers, psychologists and children's authors claimed that the erosion of "unstructured, loosely supervised" playtime is dangerously affecting young people's health.

Rather than being a waste of time in an increasingly 'time poor' world, play is vital to children's development. In an interesting article, 'The Play's the thing: Styles of playfulness', Elizabeth Jones has argued that:
In their play, children invent the world for themselves and create a place for themselves in it. They are re-creating their pasts and imagining their futures, while grounding themselves in the reality and fantasy of their lives here-and-now.
In his widely cited article Ginsburg concludes that:
  • Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength.
  • Play is important to healthy brain development.
  • Through play children at a very early age engage and interact in the world around them.
  • Play allows children to create and explore a world where they can achieve a sense of mastery.
  • Through play children can also conquer their fears while practicing adult roles, sometimes in conjunction with other children or adult caregivers.
  • As they master their world, play helps children develop new competencies that lead to enhanced confidence.
  • Undirected play allows children to learn how to work and create with others, to share, to negotiate, and to resolve conflicts.
  • When play is allowed to be child-driven, children practice decision-making skills, move at their own pace, discover their own areas of interest.
  • Play is essential for the building of active healthy bodies.
So play is critical to children's development, and time is essential to create 'space' for play. There are challenges here for parents and teachers. How do we resist the temptation to structure children's life in and out of school so much that there is little opportunity for play? As well, how do we encourage children to spend time with other children engaging in play?

2. The role of adults in play

But what role do adults fill in relation to play. Elizabeth Jones in the article cited above, suggests that adults signal very clearly to children what their priorities are and can quickly take control away from children. She has many points to make about play, but three are worth sharing here:

a) Children benefit from play with adults, and there are advantages in the experience of play situations with varied adults.

"As teachers or parents, we are never neutral; by what we choose to acknowledge and participate in, we are communicating to children what we think is important. Fortunately, adults have diverse interests, and children learn different things from the different people in their lives."

b) Adults need to be careful not to exercise too much control over play, otherwise it ceases to be play

"It is important, however, that children learn that they are competent people with good ideas. They can be denied this right by adults whose need to play a starring role leads them to ignore the fact that play is the children's turf, which needs to be entered with care. Adults itching to play teacher are likely to interrupt children's play for the sake of their own wonderful ideas. Play is children's world, and adults who take it over are denying children's need to invent it for themselves. Yet children benefit from adults' ideas, and adults benefit from being free to do things they like to do."

c) Adults can enjoy play too and learn how to engage with children and learn about children as they too enter into shared play situations.

"Adults can learn to share their own playfulness with children without overwhelming them or performing for them, if they stay aware of children's developmental levels, children's interests, and what's playful for children."

This post is based on two initial posts on play, you can read a third post on how adults can engage in play situations with their children here.


Amy @ Literacy Launchpad said...

This is a great post.

It makes me sad to see play being removed from childhood experiences more and more. Too much pressure for them to be doing formal and structured work and learning too soon.

How is it that educators (and parents) are forgetting (or never learning) how important play is??

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks for your comment Amy (sorry to be so slow to respond). Trevor

MN Snow Angel said...

Hello my name is "Deb" from Staples MN.

Play is learning! For adults and children alike, we are learning from each other. "both" the rewards & our mistakes. The most important gain is the fun! Just when I think I know the child, I learn something new. there is so much to learn from playing. I think every adult should experience the fun in "child play" I learned the other day our truck is a fire truck and the tree branches was lion king. But this was through the eyes of a child. I could have denied that, and how would you argue the fact with a 3 year old? Obviously he seen lion king or precieves our red truck as a fire truck the baby wins! And we laughed and played the entire day....