The Importance of Play for Young Children

As an only child of a single mother, I grew up entertaining myself. When mum got home from work, she didn’t have the time or space to entertain me. I knew from an early age that my own fun came from me, and what I could make, create, discover and imagine. If ever I complained of being bored, she had a list of jobs lined up for me to do – so I was rarely bored 😊

When my own boys arrived, I saw my job as creating as many play opportunities as I could, to keep them out of my way so that I could do the magnitude of jobs that come from looking after 6 people. I became the queen of play and rarely interfered when they turned the loungeroom into a cubby house, upending the lounges, pulling out the sheets from the linen press and bringing the dog in to guard the fort. Mayhem could be found in almost every room. Some days I would look at my house and wonder where my husband was, worried he had been buried in some corner landscape – or worse – leaving me alone with the kids to never return.

I was house proud, but prouder of having peace for myself and fun for my children. I would examine every piece of rubbish to discern whether it would serve the junk box to be recycled into an imaginary land. I made playdough, dress-ups, dried pasta and even had a go at making slime. The backyard was a haven of opportunity. We had a large yard with paving for bike riding, a sandpit, cubby house, trampoline, chicken pen, vegie garden and enough small trees to hide under and climb. We even had an outdoor spa that would double as a small pool in summer. I could send them outside and know they were safe. Some days I would even lock the door to give myself some reprieve from the chaos. I would leave food on the breakfast bar and they could graze whenever they were hungry, I would rarely interrupt them. The TV only ever went on for an hour in the afternoon to signal quieten down time. My boys were good players and could turn anything into fun.

I know I was fortunate to live in a house that provided lots of play opportunities and to be with my boys most of the time, working only on evenings and weekends.

Play is the work of childhood and is incredibly important in shaping the developing brain. Children need to experience play with their full body, in order to activate the different areas of the brain. Screen time just does not cut it. It is a passive activity that doesn’t cultivate the right conditions for brain development. Physical play is multidimensional in developing not only cognition, but fine and gross motor skills, perceptual abilities, problem solving and perseverance. Play activates the social and emotional parts of the brain, helping children integrate their lived experiences. Play is the building blocks of imagination and the multiple intelligences. Play, particularly on their own, also helps kids to connect with their inner world and sense of self.

I sense parents now have it much harder when it comes to creating the right conditions for play in the home. Most houses have become bigger, full of power points and with small back yards, or we live in multi-storey apartment buildings. It is easy to see that town planners and property developers are not thinking about children when they build houses with no yards. With both parents usually working outside the home, they are often tired when they get home and still have all of the other household duties to do. Popping children in front of a screen is a great short term fix – I certainly understand that.

As parents of young children (or any age really) we need to get our heads around our own use of screens, and how much interaction we let our children have with screens. Screens are here to stay, we cannot turn back the hands of time. However, when children are young and laying the foundations of their development, relying too heavily on them as a ‘quick fix’ potentially sets you up for challenges further down the track. 

When we take the easy road, things get harder over time, and when we take the hard road, things get easier. I think this is very true of parenting quick-fixes. Let’s keep the end goal in mind – a child experiencing lots of things, with a fully activated and developed brain.

Here is a list of play items that cultivate imaginative play, that children can reuse again and again:

  • Big box of recyclables which can be made into all sorts of creations for the latest game.
  • Lego, wooden blocks or other building materials that can be recreated.
  • Craft equipment, play dough, paints, wool, string.
  • Sand pits, stones, rocks, wood offcuts.
  • Gardening equipment for children.
  • Trampolines can also become cubby houses, stages, water fun, wrestling cages, a place to release anger, a place to read or rest.
  • Dress ups – start collecting now.
  • Musical instruments for concerts, plays, to play along with music and dancing.
  • The natural world. We had a forest a 15-minute walk from our house. I would often pack a picnic and head up with the boys and the neighbour’s kids. They did everything from hide and seek, treasure hunts, the building of gnome houses and fairy lands, collecting pinecones or unusual rocks, races, tree climbing and bike riding.

Young children’s developing brains are laying the foundations for a lifetime, so one of the most fundamental aspects of a childhood is play. Create plenty of opportunities for both you and your children to play – ‘tis the stuff of sweet memories.

Please read and watch the following information just to drive home how important it is to minimise screen time. To ignore this information could bite you and your children further down the track:

Video: How TV Affects the Brains of Young Children

Mindd Foundation Article on Screentime

Sending you all much love for the important work you do as parents, it ain’t easy. Tx

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