Monday, January 31, 2011

The Power of Simple Play

From the Archives - This is a revised version of a post on 23rd Nov 2009

The erosion of time for play

As I wrote in a post last year, children's play is seen by psychologists, educators and paediatricians as so important to optimal child development that it has been recognized by the Office of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights as a right of every child. But in a clinical report to the American Academy of Paediatrics, Kenneth R. Ginsburg concluded that many "....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.

In our 'time poor' age where all parents want their children to be successful in life, there is a temptation to concentrate children's spare time on structured activities. But this may not be the best thing for them. The growth of programs like 'Your Baby Can Read' (reviewed on this blog here & here) is just one example of how this is happening. The program seeks to teach children to read from as early as 6-9 months. Play is critical for children's development; it isn't an optional extra in their lives.

The loss of 'simple' play

There is also a tendency in our age to buy children lots of complex toys that don't necessarily add much to their development anyway. Louisa recently made a useful comment about this on the 4th part of my earlier series on play (here) that I did last year. Far too often, modern toys that are lavished on most children in developed countries do little to develop creativity, problem solving and knowledge. Notwithstanding the fact that you buy wonderful educational toys that can stimulate development, unstructured and spontaneous play offers the best opportunities for the development of creativity, problem solving and learning.

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 the article I referred to earlier by Kenneth Ginsburg, he 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 and discover their own areas of interest.
  • Play is essential for the building of active healthy bodies.
A simple example of creative unstructured play

I've shared many examples on this blog of unstructured and semi-structured play (check out all posts on play here). A recent example occurred just last week. I was visiting my daughter's for dinner and had a couple of hours to play with her three children (my grandchildren). My wife Carmen had bought two inexpensive packets ($2 each) of multi-coloured modelling clay with some adhesive eyes in the packets. I simply asked all three grandchildren would they like to make something. I joined in (as I often do). This is how the activity unfolded.

All three children chose some colours (I limited them to three sticks of clay at first to share the two packets three ways). Rebecca (5) and Elsie (almost 3) started making animals (a turtle, sheep, snake...), while Jacob (7) began making an invented animal with special body armour. Jacob's animal inspired me to make a strange space creature from a long thin sausage of clay; I called it a "Squiggle Monster". This led Jacob to create another even more unusual fox-like space creature. This led me to build a laser canon "for protection" against all the space creatures. The girls continued to independently create their animals. Rebecca wandered off to play another word game and Elsie kept making (and re-making) more animals.

Above: Rebecca's animals (left) and Elsie's (right)

Jacob and I had now developed quite a collection of strange space creatures and soon their destinies began to merge as we chattered about their bodies, dangerous protective weapons, sounds and so on. Barricades were built, several laser weapons positioned, force shields activated. And then...the battle began (with the demands of dinner all the while pressing in on us as we played on the dining table!). This simple activity generated lots of stimulation for all three children but in particular (on this occasion) for Jacob and Elsie. There was lots of creative thought, problem solving, hypothesising, rich language being used and so on:

"What colour can a Squiggle Monster be?" (Grandad) "Any" (Jacob)
"See these three eyes. They can see 500km." (Jacob)
"How does a Squiggle Monster die? I know, he just unravels." (Grandad)
"He's spitting acid." (Jacob)
"What's this animal Grandad?" (Elsie)
"Do you know why he can't get through the force field?" (Jacob)
"If I make this bigger will it stop them?" (Grandad)
"Look at mine Grandad". (Rebecca)
"See his rotating antennae?" (Jacob)
"What's a laser Grandad?" (Elsie)

Play doesn't need complex toys or structured activities for learning to occur, in fact, there is good evidence to suggest that play of the above type does more for creativity, problems solving, language and learning than lots of expensive toys.

Some quick practical implications from the above

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? Here are some quick suggestions:
  • Parents and teachers need to create and promote regular opportunities for free play.
  • Play should be as active as possible and where possible encourage interaction with others.
  • Remember that simplicity usually works best (remember the tendency of the baby to like the box rather than the toy!)
  • Play needs to be as child-centred as possible, not teacher centred or parent centred.
  • Try to provide access to materials and simple toys that stimulate imagination, creativity and problem solving.
  • Parents, teachers and caregivers should try to provide as much spontaneous time and play as possible.
  • Make good use of story, most play involves some type of inventive story telling.
  • Parents, teachers and care givers need to spend more time being good listeners and observers of children at play and be prepared to respond to, assist, offer materials, engage and ask questions rather than simply correcting, redirecting and controlling such play.
  • Parents, teachers and care givers should sponsor and support children having a range of interests that can be the springboard for play and learning.
Evaluating your child's play

If you wonder whether your child has sufficient good opportunities for play you might ask yourself the following questions:
How often does my child (or my children) have time for spontaneous play?
How often do I direct the play rather than responding to or supporting it?
How varied are my child's opportunities for play?
How often does my child have the opportunity to interact with others in creative play situations?
How often do I provide materials for creative play?
How often does my child's play stimulate creativity, problem solving, language use and learning?
How often do planned activities lead to creative play (e.g. TV or a story leads to play. Or, a lesson on some topic leads to playground play)?
What are your thoughts? Any ideas that seem to work?

Related links and resources

All posts on Play from this blog (HERE)

A recent post on creativity (mainly for teachers) HERE and another (mainly for parents) HERE

All my posts with relevance to creativity (HERE)

Elizabeth Jones article 'The Play's the thing: Styles of playfulness'

Kenneth R. Ginsburg's report on play


Unknown said...

My preschool aged daughter and toddler's favourite 'toy' at present is a box of dominoes. It gets daily use as money, soup (mixed up in a bowl), cake (lined up in a row and then 'cut' into individual pieces with a toy knife), and as various other props in their role playing. Dolls are fed, taken to the shops and have birthday parties with the dominoes. Then my son joins in and lines the dominoes up to knock down. Their creative use of things around them always astounds me!

We often find 'less is more' - if they have a small range of toys on offer, they will be far more creative and spontaneous than if they have all the toys they own out on display.

I also happily let them use old packaging for whatever they choose for a few days, before it is recycled - egg cartons are turned into buses, paper towel rolls are telescopes or swords, cereal boxes into a boat for teddy. 'Playschool' is often a good trigger for their play of this kind.

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks for this great comment Skye. I couldn't agree more that 'less is more'. Your point about 'Playshool' is also a good one, excellent TV programs can also be great triggers for play. Nice to hear from you.