Why we must prioritise play for today’s children and why we need to do it NOW

I have been writing and speaking about the importance of play in childhood for a very long time and yet it seems that today’s children are definitely showing the signs of diminished play activity and we all need to be concerned. This is one of my all-time favourite quotes about how play used to be and what we are losing as it slips down the priority list:

Many children played and learned in the streets, woods and fields without the looming presence of adults and albeit well-meaning coaches. Their experiences were real, varied and enormously engaging. These hands-on or concrete experiences with the real world prepared the brain for learning. What may have seemed to be unstructured play had a very serious purpose. It allowed children to discover the underlying rules and patterns that organize and make sense of the world. It may have set up a filing system for the storage and retrieval of information. Many of today’s children are starved of real life experiences.
— Gayle Gregory and Terence Parry, Designing Brain Compatible Learning (2006).

Children do not have to roam wild and free to ensure they get the hands-on concrete experiences that are so important for them developmentally. However we do need to have conversations about how we can ensure our children are still having real experiences in a real world that enables them to grow and develop healthily especially before they start big school.

Educators of 4- to 6-year-old children across Australia have been telling me with louder and louder voices of concern that today’s children are turning up to big school much less competent than previous generations. The four key concerns are:

  1. underdeveloped gross and fine motor skills
  2. lower oral vocabulary
  3. issues with self-regulation
  4. inability to play with other children.

The Australian Early Development Census from 2015 showed that there is a national average of around 22% of our 5-year-olds who are turning up with significant developmental vulnerabilities. So these concerns are much more than anecdotal evidence from our educators.

No parent wants to have their children turning up to big school and struggling in these four areas. Prevention must always be a higher priority than fixing problems identified later that could have been avoided.

We need to be concerned because these attributes and capacities have always been developed with interaction and activity through movement with humans, particularly other children, while ‘play’ takes place. When we limit these opportunities it can have a significantly negative impact on the children’s development — physically, cognitively, emotionally, socially and spiritually.

Let’s start with the first area of concern — underdeveloped gross and fine motor skills…

The need for children to keep physically active cannot be highlighted enough. Human beings were born to be movers and living a sedentary life is really a disruption to our nature. Research shows that exercise and physical activity increases the levels of serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine, which are crucial neurotransmitters that traffic thoughts and emotions right throughout the whole body. Essentially exercise has a profound impact on cognitive abilities and mental health — indeed it is simply one of the best treatments we have for most psychological challenges. Not only that, physical exercise makes the blood pump through the body and stimulates the brain to work much more efficiently and soundly. Teachers have been telling me they have met 8-year-old children who cannot catch a ball or stand on one leg. You might think, “well they might be really talented academically and have no need to do these two activities”. Sadly, brain growth and development needs physical movement and having a poor vestibular capacity and low proprioception skills will mean that you will not reach your full academic potential either.

Some research shows that children are biologically wired to be incredibly physically active and can sustain this high-intensity activity even better than elite athletes.

Play is a much underrated but incredibly vital part of children’s development. Put simply, “play grows the brain”. As Hara Estroff Marano  highlighted in her book, A Nation of Wimps , play helps to grow the parts of our brains that control how we retain information, regulate our emotions and manage our behaviour.

“This is a very subtle trick that nature plays — it uses something that is not goal directed to create the mental machinery for being goal directed”.
— Hara Estroff Marano, A Nation of Wimps (2008).

Those of you who have toddlers will know how incredibly active they are. They seem to know that they need to keep moving and touching and smelling and pulling apart things to work out how the world works.

Seriously that need to do ‘the fast getaway’ or to run as quickly as they can away from their parents or caregivers can be quite frightening! And they want to keep doing it over and over again. There is some very serious brain development and growth happening with this hunger to run. Fortunately, this stage does not last that long because whatever the invisible purpose of each activity, once it’s achieved the toddler will move on to something else they also need to do. When they can do that activity in a fenced-in playground possibly by engaging in a game of chasey, it can be far less stressful for parents.

Some of the things that can occur if our children lack movement in the first two years of life are:

  • delayed motor development
  • poor co-ordination/ balance
  • tendency to be easily distracted, lack concentration
  • language problems
  • emotional immaturity
  • motion sickness
  • reading problems.

Some of today’s digitally savvy children are missing out on many opportunities for physical movement through play, which previous generations experienced daily. There are many reasons why our children are not playing as much and a huge part of it has been the push down of formalised learning, or ‘schoolification’ as I call it.

Children are beginning formalised learning anywhere between 12 months and two years before the children of 25 years ago. Interestingly, the educational outcomes of Australian children has been declining as the ‘schoolification’ process, especially the benchmark testing focus initiated by NAPLAN, continues to embed itself in the Australian educational landscape.

“The child’s right to participate in child-initiated play, to self-direct learning as you would expect, and what we have always had in the past, is disappearing.” — Dr Sandra Hesterman, Director of Early Childhood Education at Murdoch University

Screens and devices — while not inherently bad when used appropriately — have simply displaced much of the time where children should be playing with other children, being physically active and communicating. Family life has become much less spontaneous  with activities and even play dates scheduled into family diaries weeks ahead of time. The pressure on parents to ensure their child is having every possible opportunity to blossom and bloom is definitely driven through social media. Sadly the ‘too much too soon’ pressure can create even more stress and anxiety on young children who have not developed the capacity to cope.

The second concern of lower oral vocabulary…

This can be attributed to a few different changes over time. One is that there has been a massive increase in two parents working longer hours and so the one-on-one time for conversation, for reading and for singing has simply been reduced. The research is very strong on the importance of the number of words that children hear daily and the long-term benefits this provides children.

I would urge parents to read to your children as often as you can, even if it’s just for a little while. Also if your kids are over 3 and the timing of bedtime stories is just too tricky for you because of your work hours, consider recording yourself reading a story so they can still listen even if you’re not there. Sing nursery rhymes in the car (even singing along on the car stereo), talk to them about what you see while you’re driving… whatever opportunities you can find to chat with them and introduce them to new words … know that there is great value in these things.

Language consolidation is enhanced through pretend play either individually or with other children. I have been told there are some early childhood settings mainly attached to primary schools that have removed the home corner — where much pretend play happens — in order to fit more desks in the room so children can do more seated learning.

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Parents are struggling with their own screen time and many tell me they feel really guilty when they find it hard to make time to chat with or join their children in a play activity.

I read some research that showed children under three are unable to fully comprehend sounds off screens because they are wired to interpret communication via a moving human face. This means they are listening to words as well as noticing facial expressions so that later they can interpret non-verbal communication as well. After three, children can download sounds especially from the TV and I’m sure many of you have heard a Spanish accent on your children if they’ve been watching Dora the Explorer.

 

These photos show me in a Queensland Prep (5-year-old) classroom taking part in a pretend play activity. The children regularly choose places and occupations that they want to explore and on the day I visited there was a bank, a fish and chip shop, a science laboratory and a veterinary clinic. One image shows me waiting to be seen by the vet and the receptionist had told me I had to wait — “cos he was busy!”

Then you can see me getting my dog checked out. The ‘vet’ asked what was wrong with my dog and I told him he hadn’t been eating and seemed to have an upset tummy. The ‘vet’ examined him and told me he had a broken leg and needed to stay in hospital. It was so hard not to laugh as he was so serious.

This pretend play activity in this classroom showed me so clearly our children’s learning can be enhanced through play.

For 90 minutes every child in the room, including all the boys, were deeply engaged. This class was blessed with a passionate early childhood educator with lots of experience who resisted the push from above for more teacher-driven desk time. Her principal sang her praises and said her students transitioned exceptionally well into Year 1.

So parents please chat over meal times, play shops, or airports or any games in which you and your children get to pretend … and watch them bloom.

Human communication is essential for the long-term wellbeing of our children right through life and the early years of life is the best window for the fundamentals of communication to develop including listening, speaking and having conversations.

The third area of concern is that of self-regulation…

We have so many examples of grown-ups with poor self-regulation and some of them sit in political positions of power, play sport for national teams and struggle to behave in public places and on our aeroplanes! Is it any wonder our children struggle?

Dr Stuart Shanker argues that the best indicator of how well your child will go at school is their capacity to self-regulate. This means not only their ability to manage their emotions, it is also their ability to manage their energy and to navigate the environment they find themselves in in healthy ways rather than destructive ways. This ‘Maggie moment’ may help you understand this better.

You do not need to be Einstein to appreciate the things that help build self-regulation in children — they are pretty obvious!

Things that promote self-regulation:

These include music, drama, art, sport, time in nature, safe touch, real play, reading, self-calming strategies, mindfulness and loving relationships with consistent caregivers. The more that children experience these things, the better they will self-regulate when they get to school.

Things that don’t promote self-regulation:

The things that need to be minimalised or avoided as they can have a negative impact on the development of self-regulation include TV, iPads, tablets, video games, passivity, overstimulation, too much stress and pressure on children, poor food, not enough sleep and emotional disconnection.

I strongly encourage you to read Dr Shanker’s book Self-Reg to learn more or visit his great website for other information and resources.

The last concern is the inability of children to play with other children…

Our early childhood educators are noticing a significant decrease in children’s emotional and social development in recent times. This can create problems as we are social beings and we all yearn for and need connection.

Play is the fertile soil with which we grow the seeds of human connectedness — our fundamental, most primary need as a human.

Just because we are unable to assess or test the intricate and invisible nuances of human communication and connectedness, we should not diminish the incredible importance of play in early childhood.

I love this quote by Dr Tina Payne Bryson who has co-authored many excellent books about childhood with Dr Daniel Siegel:

“We can think of play as relationship building, intimacy building, trust building.”
Dr. Tina Payne Bryson

Having healthy human relationships is one of the most significant protective factors in terms of human resilience and it cannot be nurtured and strengthened without hours and hours of interaction with others especially in the form of play. Many children today grow up without an ease of access to other children outside of school. Families are much smaller these days, and cousins live further away often. The media has frightened parents into not allowing their children to play in local neighbourhoods and recreation time for parents and children is hard to find in our busy world. However many parents have begun having these conversations and have started to prioritise times where families can spend significant time together at parks or beaches and on holidays.

When I ask a group of parents what play they experienced as children, and what they really loved, an interesting thing happens. These parents do not mention expensive toys or indoor games. The things they loved as kids were building cubbies, riding bikes (often without helmets, gears or brakes), catching tadpoles, building billy carts, climbing trees, and hours of playing chasey, hide-and-seek and spotlight.

One parent shared with me her story of going camping with her children at a beach campsite where they could have up to 30 children playing spotlight. Mind you, some of those children were in their 40s! Many of these play pursuits used to occur often, with little direction from adults and costing very little money. These opportunities are still available — obviously we need to wear helmets now — it just simply takes a shift in awareness of the importance of prioritising play for our kids.

There is no time in this blog to explore the importance of building resilience through allowing children to experience risk and challenge, and the need for children to spend more time playing in nature, and why dirt is good however I cannot finish this message without mentioning the sacredness of play.

The sacredness of play

When a child is immersed in play, so much so that they do not notice time go by, they reach a place of incredible significance.

Firstly it is a moment of transcendence from the ordinary world. Natural, drug-free, chemical-free transcendence is very healthy for later life.

Secondly, that absorption is often a clue in later life about life purpose, what is important to them. For some children the activity can be watching ants, playing nurses or maybe building in the sandpit. It has a soul connection that needs to be honoured, if not treasured.

Finally, the silent search for meaning that gives such a deep and profound sense of joy and wellbeing is a totally normal human need. It allows a really unforced and spontaneous connection between the inner and outer world to occur. This is pure magic.

Allowing children these moments of profound transcendence can be deceptively powerful in helping your child find their own uniqueness, their own sense of self and maybe a glimpse into their own soul

Friedrich Frobel saw play as the most spiritual activity in which a child can engage:

The child who has restricted opportunities for play is like a fruit tree which is planted in a small pot and therefore cannot bear good fruit.

Let’s heed his words and please reclaim play for your children.