The Power of Play

Take yourself back to your childhood for a moment, shut your eyes, can you remember how you played? What did you play? What toys did you love? It can be great to reminisce about those innocent times but what you may not know is how incredibly important that play was for you and your development. True play …it’s about so much more than just fun and entertainment! It is actually what “grows” us up, into our true selves.

During my work with families I have noticed that true play is more and more becoming a thing of the past in homes. It seems to have gradually, even unconsciously been replaced by entertainment in the form of screens, electronic high stimulation toys, educational “outcome” based toys or collectible ‘fad’ toys whose clever marketing make your child feel pressured to have what everyone else has. A few of these things aren’t going to be harmful for your child however when it comes to ‘entertainment’ it really needs to be the ‘dessert’ after the ‘main course’ of true play in order that children can access their imagination and their emergent energy from within to construct, build, create, and so on.

Children who have a lot of stimulation from the TV or computer may report being bored away from them because their emergent play and energy has been stifled, subdued, or overpowered. However, if you have noticed this happening all is not lost, a gradual reduction of the stimulation of screens and the introduction of more unstructured time can be a great place to start. Rather than list toys that may or may not fit your child I want to start by just saying that children don’t need many toys to play, or any particular one. What children need most of all is unstructured time. You don’t need to stimulate or enrich play and you don’t have to control it. Sometimes we can help most by getting out of the way, while still being available. There is some wonderful advice on play and the need for simplification of toys and books in Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne. He reminds us “we can help our children play providing time, opportunities and resources. Play is an of-the-moment affair, as any parent knows who’s fielded an urgent request for “feathers!” or “a really floppy hat” or “something we can use for a shopping cart”. The resource providing can be tricky, but by allowing rather than controlling we give children a sense of freedom and autonomy. Their play is open ended, the choices and decisions are theirs to make and the discovery process includes self-discovery”. There is so much that happens within a child through regular true play that I think that providing opportunity and resource for it is one of the most important aspects of parenting. Starting from infancy play is vital in the parent child relationship, it is actually referred to as the‘cradle’ of attachment, it is pivotal to the bond. Play is incredibly important if there has been trauma in attachment, it offers children a sense of safety that cannot be provided by anything else.

As a child grows and explores the world more independently, they will play on their own alongsideyou as well as with you. These times are critical for brain development as it is where children form neural networks that are involved in problem solving and creativity.Children who lack environments that foster play actually have brains that are 20 to 30% less developed in capacity.

For these golden play times to emerge we need to do our part and ensure their attachment needs are taken care of, provide the necessary materials, and a space free of stimulation. When these conditions are met, we can sit back and watch their imaginings take hold.A foremost authority on child development and one of my heroes, Dr Gordon Neufeld, reminds us “We can rest assured that it is not just child’s play; it is how children build the brains that are required for work and learning, the brains that will solve the problems of tomorrow”.

So, what is true play? I have listed some of the things that it is below:

‍It is…

  • Not work
  • Not stimulation
  • Not passive
  • Not entertainment
  • Not for real
  • Safety: Reduces the fear/alarm in the body
  • Emotional expression
  • Fosters a sense of self
  • Reduces anxiety and brings a sense of calm
  • Natural development/maturation
  • Provides Psychological REST
  • DIFFUSES counter will/defiance
  • helps ATTENTION
  • ALLEVIATES boredom and depression
  • sparks CREATIVITY
  • optimizes LEARNING
  • helps to HEAL and recover

Play is the safety zone where we can let out our emotions in an acceptable way that won’t threaten our attachments. In play, it is OK if we yell, explode, cry, act scared, get overly excited, are worried, or even plan or pretend to hurt someone because in play there are no consequences.

Play has a beginning and an end and is not for real.Play allows our children to show sides of themselves they are too inhibited to show in real life. It protects their feelings from being hurt and allows for the necessary expression of our pent-up emotions. It’s how they cope. It helps them to feel calm again and can provide a safe alternative to crying when crying causes those around them to shame them.

I hope this blog has given you a deeper insight into the power of play. We explore more of this subject in my coaching program where we can deep dive into things such as playful parenting, how to nurture your child’s inner motivation to play and why play is so important in the learning process.

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