Space for play sparking creativity

The Importance of Play!

Recalibrating our lives during lock-down!

I have decided to collapse the Parenting and Teaching newsletters temporarily, during this Lock-Down period, because I know there is a lot of cross-over between teachers who are parents, and also that teachers are also supporting families -albeit from a distance. So if any of what I write resonates and proves useful, please do not hesitate to pass on, and share with other fellow parents.
So we’re only in the second day of online schooling, and the first day of what is set to be 3 weeks of a harsher regime of isolation. How are things with you? Feel free to get in touch with what your biggest challenges are, and I can factor them in to future newsletters / bulletins: 
I’m going to riff on the importance of play now – especially for busy adults at this time. If you want to cut to the chase and look at the nucleus of the article with 10 things you need to know about play, scroll down to the boxed text.

I’ll freely admit to flip-flopping between feeling wide-eyed, white knuckled panic, that my work is in free-fall, that somehow I should be doing something about it but what? And where to start? At the same time, I have been waking at night remembering what I have forgotten to put on the one supermarket delivery I managed to book in before the world went into online shopping melt-down OMG – I forgot the decaf tea!!! 
Of course, my default response to stress is to DO MORE STUFF! I have Marie Kondo’ed the drawers, the clothes I’m not going to be wearing are now ordered by shade the house is cleaner than ever before. And it does feel good to be in a less cluttered tiny apartment. But my point is I know I am deflecting, avoiding and DOING in order to soothe myself from the more difficult and important task of finding a different way of BEING. That will be kinder to myself, and ultimately kinder to my better half and child.
My ATLAS complex is an interesting thing – and it’s one I have to watch. Is this something you share? It’s a great one for parents, teachers and many school leaders. Holding the world on our shoulders, doing it all for everyone else, not asking for help enough because we like being Kings and Queens of our classrooms and our homes. We spin the plates, and don’t delegate because it’s quicker that way and let’s face it, like the Bond song…Nobody does it better…
I know that secretly, I like my power-base. I like people to appreciate ALL THAT I DO FOR THEM! I am uncomfortable when someone else is cooking dinner at home. Instead of sitting and leafing through a magazine with a cool drink, I competitively clean and tidy. But it’s a false economy, the Atlas set-up. You can only carry the world on your shoulders until you can’t hold it any longer and you drop the ball, burn out or burn some bridges!

Atlas phenomenon. Nobody does it better…

PLAY is a way of being. It’s a way of being in the moment, absorbed, stretched, engaged. It comes quite naturally to children but many of us grow out of it AND collude in our children growing out of it far too soon. Play is vital to our wellbeing. Remember the axiom from the old Mars adverts “A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play?” And they were right. (These are 3 of the 4 platforms of our wellbeing – with connection / relationship being the fourth.)
All mammals play – with more expansive and complex play being a vital part of adolescent development. What is the nature of human play in adolescence? How has that changed over time? Certainly play has drastically changed in scope and dimension over the past century with the freedom children have to roam being massively curtailed as the illustration looking at generations of a family based in Sheffield shows. Play has become a lot safer – good. But a lot more structured, a lot more supervised, and a lot more channelled. And from the 11+ onwards, the time to play has been downgraded. To be done after work. In fact for many children, play in its essence, gives way to a barrage of activities. Judo, Music lessons, Football, Choir, Debating, Tutoring, and later academic extension activities, lectures, and Model United Nations.
I am grateful that the online school project we are all undertaking – has offered an opportunity to be more creative and discerning with time. I am glad that the activities set by my daughter’s school are not over-scheduled and not over-ambitious. It is vital that we can all have space and scope to stay connected in quality ways in between all the different task-shifts of the day for our 10 year old and for us. And especially important that just because we are able to work for 8 hours, that we ensure she has the staying power to work-rest-and-play in harmony with the plates we are spinning – but it takes negotiation, space and a sense of balance. 
No wonder as adults we are often out of practice with sustaining play as a feature in our lives. And I wonder at what cost? If we have play at all, is it in the form of a diversionary phone worm-hole (AKA Candy Crush?) It means our relationship with ourselves is often heavier than it needs to be (cf Atlas). Our relationships with our parenting partners / spouses more functional / one dimensional than they need to be? And the same for our interpersonal relationships in the family? How many times have we tried to ‘tell’ our children not to be anxious, instead of playfully role-playing it with a wise-owl soft toy, or a little baby piglet needing help overcoming the terror of the hand-dryer.

The scope and dimensions of children’s play has radically changed over recent generations. Now we get some time to recognise its power and reclaim it if we dare. The largest area in this map is the Great Grandfather’s freedom to roam as a child..the full stop is today’s child.

A manifesto for play Why play is important, and ways of factoring more of it in at this fraught time. Since the 1950s, we are all working more and spending more time with our kids….but ironically we are structuring that time out of play and connection.

Play is – in essence – free. It costs little or nothing. And it should always be the product of free choice, negotiation and creativity. Interesting how the concept ‘free-play’ has crept in to our culture. Through play, children exert AGENCY – another vital component of wellbeing. They are in control, directing the flow of the action. No one needs to tell them what to do next, they create it. There’s a reason why the most expensive toys at Christmas often get left behind in favour of some simple, cheap trinket that fires the imagination. One year for us, it was a piece of material that still multi-tasks as an invisibility cape or travelling Circus prop. Play is a natural state of being that we struggle to get back to in our over-structured, over-engineered and consumer-driven lives. Get off Amazon. You won’t get anything till May now anyway…you have more than all you need at home right now. Play fosters CREATIVITY and IMAGINATION. Like the Tardis, den-making transports youngsters in space and time. A table can be a prison or a pirate ship. Full of danger or delight, and roles can be played with flair. The goody-two-shoes can get to be Captain Black-beard. The princess can take her turn as the scullery maid. 
Play is almost SCIENTIFIC in its quality of free ABSORPTION and CURIOUS attention. Pre lock-down yesterday, my daughter and I watched a toddler playing with a mound of grit with total focus, pushing holes in it, digging wells, describing. Dragging a 4, 5, 6, 7+ child from playing with Lego in order to have to leave the house is a battle because they are in the zone. Experiences of play open up the child / adolescent and adult to the experience of FLOW, from Mihayli  Csikszentmihalyi’s work on wellbeing: “The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times . . . The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). How long is it since your teen had a real life (as opposed to computer-programmed and structured) experience of entirely self-directed flow? Experiences of flow are the gateway to providing overloaded brains with a holiday from work, anxiety, preoccupation. They also allow the brain to return to task refreshed. Literally RE-CREATION It’s a thing.

Play is independent. It requires minimal supervision or facilitation. What would it be like – in these times of confinement at home – if everyone had their chance – and increasingly greater chances to play both of the co-dependent, negotiated variety, and the independent kind? Those who home-school know this trick. They are not spending 24/7 with their kids. They are gifting them time to get on with stuff of their own.  The self-directed element builds autonomy. And it pays NOT to interrupt. Don’t narrate their play or interrupt the flow. Unteach them the need to be dependent on you and you build them from the inside out – intrinsic drive and motivation. Teach them responsibility for using time well. Boredom is a lesson they can learn from and a choice that they make. When they cry out ‘I’m bored!’ Put it back on them, and get them to look at options and exert choice and agency. It’s not good to be in constant contact. It leads to burn-out. Securely attached babies are able to go off and explore. And there’s a beauty in that rhythm which is the hallmark of healthy relationships throughout life – to be able to come and go, connect and separate. If your marriage or relationship is very controlled / controlling, though it’s not easy, there are some chances to work on this over these intense times. Create an environment for play we can’t control another human, but we can control elements of our environment at home. We can scaffold opportunities for deep play by using what we’ve got more wisely whether that’s space or resources. Our kids might well be a little out of practice with being independent and self-directed in the hurly burly of normal routines. It might be a bit much to expect them to forensically go back to their heaps of unplayed or underplayed toys and gifts and strike gold. Here I am a fan of what Kim John Payne talks of with ‘Simplicity Parenting’ – help reduce the quantity on offer. Select and ‘strew’ some invitations to play to help the kids get ignition. Pique their imagination with tinker boxes, and create enchantment by paring the farm animals with a bowl of water on the bathroom floor, scarves and sheets for drapes or sea-scapes. With older kids, sorting through the back catalogue can resurrect some forgotten gems. It’s about allowing kids to be, reconnecting them with their creativity, resourcefulness and wholeness standing aside from the CGP Revision guides… And the small amount of ingenuity you invest here will pay you back in the morale of the household, time for you – and opportunities for you to reconnect with play. Play is therapeutic. You can grow and change as a result of the experience of play. Kids often process what’s in their minds through play. During my years of infant / young child observation as part of my Psychotherapy training, you could see what a serious business play is. The number of times the twins I observed would make womb-like cocoons, intimate little nooks and enact togetherness and separation, they were growing together and apart and working things out! Sometimes the quality of play a child is pursuing is quite telling of their state of mind. When a child’s play style changes – it’s often worth while being curious about it. Are there a lot of car crashes? Sicknesses? Dying? Are they regressing to long-abandoned soft toys? Is there an expression there of a need that they are acknowledging and meeting through play? Play helps us attune to our bodies. We are in the 21st Centurt equivalent of confinement right now. Here I am sitting in bed hunched over my iPad- which has just been freed from doing overtime as the key vehicle for my daughter to access her online learning. My little TRex arms tapping away…What I need is to stretch and move – and some rough-and-tumble play would be a perfect way to connect and shrug off work. In addition to making kids more resilient, rough and tumble play actually rewires the brain for learning. Neuroscientists studying animal and human brains have found that bouts of ‘roughhousing’ increase the brain’s level of a chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF helps increase neuron growth in the parts of the brain responsible for memory, logic, and higher learning–skills – boosting cognitive performance. And of course this style of play is the ultimate team work, non-verbal – or minimally verbal. Done well, it is an elegant masterclass in control and empathy.  Roughhousing teaches children about taking turns and cooperation. You might not recognize it, but when you horse around with your kids, you’re often taking part in a give-and-take negotiation where the goal is to make sure everyone has fun.  Sometimes you’re the chaser and sometimes you’re the chasee; sometimes you’re pinning down your kids and other times they’re pinning you down. Your kids wouldn’t want to keep playing if they were constantly on the losing side.  Everyone has to take turns in order for the fun to continue. Of course, it also is rich ground for providing teachable moments about consent, and boundaries about good touch, bad touch, what is fun and playful, and what is too much, going too far. Play involves connecting with others- and for kids of all ages – but especially teenagers, being disconnected from their tribe is going to be one of the most painfully restrictive elements. However it’s the perfect opportunity to develop reflection and discernment. Most of the mistakes that cause the biggest troubles between peers at school happen online. Checking in with them – how are they doing / feeling after those online interactions is really important. And where their values have been breached and they feel that the secure base of their friendships is rocked we have a wonderful opportunity to help them reflect on their values and grow that ability to be discerning. We do indeed learn from play – the good, the bad, and the ugly. Making sure that their online ‘play’ is limited and not encroaching on time to work, time to connect in real time at home, or time to sleep, is really important in these less structured times. The proximity of teens to younger siblings in the home for extended periods means also being able to call on their capacity to be role models and stay mindful of boundaries of what to and what not to share online. Especially where taking pictures, films etc and publishing them is concerned. An online tour of your laundry is maybe taking the ‘through the keyhole’ genre a step too far. Transparency and accountability about what they are going to be doing online – when – and where – is going to be important. We are all having to re-align. We are a very low-screen household as far as our parenting goes. But now online schooling means our daughter is having to use an iPad or laptop and search and research and it means that those tentacles of curiosity and playfulness are extending therefore building trust, boundaries, dialogue is even more important – but there is more time to do it. Similarly face-time or Zoom-facilitated play is a lovely thing to do – but needs to be facilitated and contained. Being able to get up and move and use play to do that is going to be a priority. Play provides a powerful way of meeting one of 3 core psychological needs: to be safe, to feel satisfied, and to be connected. Right now I am reading The Opposite of Worry: The Playful Parenting Approach to Childhood Anxieties and Fears” by Lawrence J. Cohen and he writes about the capacity of play and playful parenting to help children -young and old – with anxiety. Our ability to play together – not just teach our children – but be by their side to tune in with nuance, ingenuity, lightness of touch – is a very powerful gift – a modelling of perspective and ongoing commitment to loving connection. Life is full of missed steps in the dance. And play a key way to reconnect “Many problems are prevented or solved just by being eye-to-eye or shoulder-to-shoulder with a child. With older children you might not actually be on the floor. Instead, reconnecting might involve sitting next to children on the couch watching a TV show you hate (because they love it and you want to connect with them), or staying up late (because they are more likely to talk openly with you at midnight than at the dinner table). Another way to think about connection-disconnection-reconnection is Filling the Empty Cup. Imagine that every child has a cup inside that needs to be filled with affection, love, security, and attention. With a full cup, children are likely to be cooperative, happy, and creative. With an empty cup, children are more likely to be uncooperative, miserable, and stuck in behaviors that get them into trouble. One of our biggest jobs as parents is to give out emotional refills. We do this by giving our children attention, meeting their needs, giving them choices, listening to them, and offering encouragement.” (from “The Opposite of Worry: The Playful Parenting Approach to Childhood Anxieties and Fears” by Lawrence J. Cohen)

The perils of what happens when parents get over-involved and take too much on. Mind you, as the months go on here’s one way to step into our power Mwaaahahahaha!

So RELAX, stop replicating the structures that have been driving you – and reclaim the power of play for the sake of your own mental health – and that of your family.
So whatever you’re DOING in response to lock-down tune in, recognise how you are carrying your worries, fears, burdens. Atlas, put down the globe. Build in play as a way to reduce, deflect anxiety and disconnection and find an outlet for a creative energy that will re-create both mental and physical space and time for you and your loved ones. 
Email me if you are interested in a FREE online ‘Sharing circle’ I am thinking of running when I have got my head around Zoom. It’d be a lightly facilitated discussion time to express yourself around the parenting issues you are facing now, and an opportunity to feel heard and hear from others. Sharing circles are about the power of listening, not trying to fix things or overload with advice. Let me know.
As always, with much love and gratitude,

More to explore