The joy, art, and science of play…

Why we need quality play in home-life, school-life…and the emerging consequences of not taking play seriously…

Though I often get booked to do talks for parents in schools and businesses, the topics I am asked to deliver most frequently, and the topics that are most well attended, are those on an issue of risk, threat, uncertainty, concern…Mental health, resilience, supporting our children when they are having tough times with their peers…Screen-time…

It was rather lovely to be asked to deliver something contrasting just prior to the Easter break – on the Power of Play. This is a wonderful and joyful topic – very close to my heart. Play and playfulness is the highest expression of creativity, collaboration, attunement, and synchronicity in a relationship. Whether you are 5 years old or 50.

You can’t be playful where you don’t feel safe.

And ironically, trauma specialists are looking closely now at play as being the gateway to developing core embodied experiences of safety to help reset the nervous system. Dr Stephen Porges, the founder of Polyvagal Theory which links the operations of the nervous system to our mental health and relational functioning – has concentrated much of his recent work on the power of play to co-regulate (access more expansive feelings of calm and safety) in order to help shift anxiety and trauma-based reactions.

All mammals learn socialisation skills through play in their infancy and adolescence. This involves a kind of dance of approach-avoid, responding to sounds of play partners and the movements of facial muscles around the eyes and jaw. It’s hard wired into our nervous system to be able to anticipate threat or move in towards joyous connection and intimacy. We learn to read each other through the richness of these interactions. We learn physical boundaries also – kind touch as well as balance and strength and physical agility through rough-and-tumble and chase.

As couples move through courtship into established stability, through to parenthood, and beyond, the quality of their capacity to retain playfulness within that partnership is what can provide uplift through the routines and responsibilities. It’s what can take a relationship and our lived experience from functional to fulfilling.

As parents, we need to think carefully about the quality of the family life we are leading. In the past, working with parent discussion groups, a common theme is the way in which routines build mollusc-like in our day-to-day operations. It is so much easier to add, add, add to the schedule. Far less so to cut back and declutter.

Before we know it, we are shuttling one child or other from activity to activity, chauffeuring, concierging, facilitating, CV-building around the arms-race of parental ‘shoulds’…commitments to mastery of a musical instrument, a team sport, prepping for non-verbal reasoning tests, SATs tests entrance tests, scholarship tests, learning to swim, this, that, or other hobbies. All very busy-busy parenting work. We think we’re in charge, but actually the schedule drives us…and we wonder why it’s so hard to get the kids to leave the house on time…

In many ways, you could say our kids have never had it so good. Lots of structure, lots of enjoyment, encouragement, learning, mastery…What’s not to like?

It’s interesting to note how the decline in what now gets called ‘true play’ – ie unstructured, unsupervised, entirely child-led play has coincided with the rise in mental health problems like anxiety and depression in young people. A paper recently published in the Journal of Pediatrics caught my attention. Written by Dr Peter Gray, David Lancy and David Bjorklund of the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience in Boston College, it summarised the evidence for the decline in independent activity as having a causal link with the decline of mental health and wellbeing of children. And it made for stark reading…

Essentially in reducing and even removing the scope for free play, we reduce the much needed experiences of autonomy kids and teens are able to have access to. Our kids are at school for longer hours than 40 years ago, and time for play both in school and out of it has been squeezed. Spaces for play have been marginalized in schools, and some secondary schools even have no space at all for play. Play times have been similarly squeezed within the timetabled structure of the school day, with expectations that older children and teens participate in structured activities.

This map, made in 2007, recently displayed in the 2019 exhibition about play at the Wellcome Centre in London, shows the areas where children from four successive generations of one family in Sheffield were allowed to roam unaccompanied at the age of 8. A survey by the National Trust in 2012 reported that children’s freedom to roam has declined by almost 90% since the 1970s. This has contributed to what they term ‘nature deficit syndrome’, contributing to physical and mental health problems among children and a growing inability to assess risks to themselves and others.

After school, there are numerous homework plates to be spun, with schools outsourcing learning to parents right from the get-go. It’s deemed safer for our kids to be at home, in our custody, and screens have taken over as a pacifier – quieter, more sedentary, but with the added pressure of having to manage the addictive impact of persuasive design. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-screens at all – but they, plus the encroachments of school on free time, have contributed to the quality of children’s play becoming more one-dimensional, less autonomous.

In the same way that when you go to Brownies, Scouts, Dance, or Football Club, your time is supervised, what you do is directed, risk assessed, insured…when you play a game or use an app online, you’re in an environment that has been created by others, and you have to play the game by rules other people have created.

When we talk about free play- we mean experiences where our children get to navigate peer to peer interactions. They negotiate the terms, the rules, the roles, the landscape. They collaborate, and communicate. They use their imagination to inject fun and drama, they use communication skills to appreciate or not…to include and involve. There’s a richness of creativity and communication, and emotion regulation skills going on to keep their play partners on-board…

Play is essential for learning about the world, as well as providing the physical and psychological benefits of having fun. Rough and tumble play, climbing, chasing, catching all help develop gross motor skills and a strong core. In early years, and kindergarten settings, I can say for the past 10 years or so we are seeing the impact of children not having had sufficient time on the playground engaging in these vigorous activities. It means their core is too floppy to sit and pay attention on the carpet or maintain an alert active posture in a chair.

The emotional need to play was a key feature of 20th Century child psychiatry and psychology. Many children were left traumatised in WW2. Margaret Lowenfield was a British paediatrician, child psychologist, and psychoanalyst who pioneered the use of play therapy. Winnicott used play as a central practice to communicate with children in his care. The UN Convention of the Rights of the Child in 1989 declared play as a basic need.

Play provides RECREATION – enabling a child to come back to focus. Prof of Education Kyung Hee Kim notes that since 1990 even as IQ scores have risen, creative thinking scores have decreased significantly. “Children have become less emotionally expressive, less unconventional, less lively and passionate, less perceptive, less apt to connect seemingly irrelevant things, less synthesizing, and less likely to see things from a different angle.” She notes that as young as 4 we start testing and benchmarking and this focus on academics has an impact on play and creativity. Check out her work: “The Creativity Crisis”. What do polls of CEOs tell us we need for future success in a world on the cusp of an AI Revolution? Creativity and human skills.

On a physical, structural level, children who have done their time on the playground have strong core muscles. When they do come to school, they have the physical strength to sit on the carpet and stay upright, focus, listen, and take in what’s going on. 8 years ago when I was a governor of a primary school, we were needing to actively deploy teaching assistants to help lead sessions that would have precisely that aim of building core strength and gross motor skills. I suspect, as post-pandemic, that that need has increased due to the proliferation of screen life and sedentary habits…

What gets in the way of play? Life – school selection, school choice certainly can skew relationships in family life from Year 4 or 5 onwards. I will not forget how our daughter’s birthday party in Year 5 was characterised by conversations about school visits, tutors, applications, tests, and plans for preparing for the tests…The requirement to benchmark learning and progress gets in the way. The emphasis is skewed to this in our culture anyway. And post pandemic catch-up narratives also mean more is more on the teaching front…

The emphasis on the outer game of skills, results, and achievement proliferates in our culture, and to an extent in our nurture too. The Early Years setting is the only area where there is an explicit assessed focus on human skills, social skills. If you haven’t’ got it by the age of 5 or 6, move on, dear one, it’s time for phonics and number bonds.

And once a kid is on their way to secondary school, there is an extent to which there is a collusion with poor social and emotional skills as being an acceptable collateral to giftedness in their academics…I saw a post on Facebook that struck me as resonant: “If a child can do advanced maths, speak 3 languages, or receive top grades, but can’t manage their emotions, practice conflict resolution, or handle stress, none of that other stuff is going to matter.” The source of the quotation is unknown – but it is something I can strongly relate to as an educator. The need to tend to the whole person, not just their cognitive mastery is a question of ethics and morality.

I remember the Head of the Maudsley Hospital School, Dr John Ivens, once telling me how frequently he noticed that academically high performing anorexics in his care who were profoundly, profoundly ill, and were there in his school – the only in-patient psychiatric school in the UK to recover – were being sent and set vast quantities of work from school. Some of them were doing five or six A Levels…I marvelled at this busy educational collusion in the denial of the precarious inner lives of these children under the spell of such a dangerous illness. Mindblowing.

So these are some of the backdrop ideas about why play is so important. Developmentally, psychologically, and relationally. Anecdotally, I can tell you that through my training work with teachers in primary and prep school settings, as well as right through the age range, we are seeing lagging social and emotional skills in the wake of the pandemic. I have worked with professionals who are seeing the following:

  • Difficulty initiating and sustaining play amongst children entering Early Years Settings.
  • Difficulty with imaginary play.
  • Collaborative work is more fraught with larger numbers of children refusing to participate in group work.
  • Difficulty regulating emotions – which has a knock-on effect in making and sustaining friendships as post 6 years old, those who lack those skills get chosen less frequently as play-companions which compounds the lagging social skills with scarcer opportunity to practice them.
  • More lashing out in conflict and holding grudges.

Clearly there will be some children who will need interventions like nurture groups, or ELSA interventions by trained specialists (Emotional Literacy Support Assistants) in order to give them a boost. It is easy to see how the need for harmony can make us risk averse around our children’s play, and therefore build in more and more structure. It only takes a spate of a few incidents on the playground, or a few playdates or sleepovers gone wrong, to make us retreat and hand little Johnny or Fiona over to some sports coach who will help them burn off their excess ‘joie de vivre’ without incident…

And a reminder of what the experts say independent play does for us:

  1. You are in charge – you set the pace and the challenge at an optimal level for excitement. It’s a creative enterprise and self driven
  2. You discover your own power and autonomy
  3. Your social skills develop – you learn how to compromise, how to be assertive. You understand cause and effect
  4. You get to try out different roles and approaches for size.
  5. You learn how to manage big feelings – yours and the feelings of others on an equal footing without parents or teachers. This takes self control, negotiation, empathy
  6. Cognitive function increases. 9-10 year olds who have a higher level of aerobic fitness have more fibrous and compact white matter tracts.

So what can we do as parents on the home front?

  1. Remember the mantra from Steven King’s The Shining – ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.’…Indeed it does – and the way in which the task of school transition at 11+ can – if we let it- sap play out of relationships between 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 year olds and their parents is worth consideration. If you don’t want your teenage kid to slam their bedroom door shut age 13+, you’ve got to think – what will entice them to open it again? Not another functional conversation about homework or instrument practice…
  2. Make sure there is quality down time in your home routines. When do they get to decompress from all the structure and hurly burly of the school day? When is it that the kids get to do something of their own choosing…? Make home a safe harbour where there is a change of gear, a change of pace from the world outside.
  3. Have play dates that involve hanging out…Don’t have a social get-together at a museum or other worthy, aspirational place of learning. Nurture and enrich the soil around a playdate – help your kid plan ideas about what they can do. Spur them into sorting some toys and bits of kit that might be worth having out to spark some play, and to put away any precious treasures they don’t want to get broken…Give them a sense of a time frame. E.g. no screens till the last half hour. Don’t hover over them. Give them designated places where they can play. Eg hide and seek is ok but not in our bedroom or the home office. Have all the doors open so you can have low level passive surveillance – ie not hearing the content of the conversation, but the tone and pace, and physicality of it can be heard by you. Let them know where you will be…and voila…you can return to your laptop, magazine, cup of coffee safe in the knowledge you are racking up brownie points with other parents and the possibility of home-and-away fixtures…If they come to you bored, or needy…ask them questions to help scaffold and spark ideas – don’t capitulate straight away into stepping in to help… Ask about peak play experiences in the past. What games they like…Show confidence in their ability to create something cool independently, together.
  4. Teach them some road safety and build their skills to be able to go with siblings or friends to a designated place nearby to play more independently when they are of an age when they need to start to embark on having more agency with travel and interactions away from you – eg starting secondary school. Establish ground rules – for instance staying together as a group – which areas are OK, which are out of bounds and why. Navigating timings. Ensure they are clear and confident about the route there and back.
  5. Do a play audit…what does fun look like in your household…when are you having fun with the kids? What interactions do you tend to have that involve goofing around? When is humour coming to the fore? Creativity? When do the kids get to see you as more than the person who pays the bills and chases them on their homework commitments…And here, the challenge is to focus on day-to-day life. I’m not talking about taking them to Coral Reef Waterworld or Chessington, or being on holiday…Can you make something more game-like in the day-to-day things you do? Using music and movement…silly dances…chasing them and missing them…jokes, silly walks, in a gallery or museum providing silly commentary or creating a meme out of some worthy classical work of art…Playing games together – shooting hoops in the garden…rough-housing…See Dr Lawrence Cohen, author of The Opposite of Worry and Playful Parenting or The Art of Roughhousing by Anthony de Bedenet and Lawrence Cohen.
  6. Be curious and forgiving, not judgmental, when things go a little wrong. Mistakes are going to be made in the sand tray of childhood and teen development. Focusing on successful repair, skill-building, equipping and empowering our children for the future, rather than crime and prescriptive punishment will be more productive than hounding school leaders to prevent such things ever happening ever again…
  7. Take an interest in the secret life of play of children and make that something you discuss with schools at parents evening, or open days. What is play like? What are the options, the spaces available, how does your child show up around play time? What equipment is available, are there zoned areas so that different types of play can co-exist?
  8. Take an interest in play experiences…don’t just ask what they did in Maths, Science or English…what games are afoot on the playground…?

Plato is meant to have said that you can learn more about a man in an hour of play, than in a year of conversation…

What can schools do?

  1. Do play-time observations – look at the social and emotional skills on display, and the social and emotional skills that seem to be needed and make the end of play-time a time when great examples of play and play behaviours can be celebrated, appreciated and shared.
  2. Look at the range of kit available to support imaginative and creative play. Is the kit centring on sport and physical mastery, could there also be tinker stations, crafting corners, rudimentary hard-wearing dress-up kits, coats, cloaks, hats, to support role play and imagination…
  3. Take an inter-generational approach…invite parents, grandparents to come in and talk with the kids about play – developing a conversation about how play has evolved over time, what play looked like 50, 60 years ago, 20, 30 years ago. Get teachers to nominate favourite games…do some story telling around their peak moments of play…
  4. Ignite curiosity in different types and styles of play…get some creative thinking about other opportunities for play that exist, but haven’t been tried yet…Get the kids to experiment, take a scientific approach…What is the impact of different types of play – screen time and vigorous, in person, self-directed play on their relationships, their moods, their sensations in the body…
  5. Create dialogue with parents about play – its importance, its place in the lives of children. As Lawrence Cohen entitles his book on playful parenting – ‘The Opposite of Worry’ – play is an important antidote to our age of anxiety. Rather than recruiting parents as teaching assistants, how about relating to parents about their core role – which is the social and emotional development of their child, the richness of their inner lives, the development of confidence on their flight path to independence – of which play is an essential part right from the get-go. Don’t just have these sorts of conversations in the Early Years where the assessment framework gives licence for it…keep that conversation going right through primary and into early secondary. We collude with the discarding of play too early. And sometimes that is structural. Outstanding schools offer such a rich array of activities at lunch time, that by Year 6 many kids are having their playtimes filled with structured activity. Then we wonder why their relationships go ‘Lord of the Flies’ in teendom…

These are some starter ideas, my clarion call for us to do a ply audit and an anxiety detox. I heard Gabor Mate – the leading light on Trauma – contextualising the notion of ‘toxic culture’ in terms of lab work. He said that if you were trying to grow healthy cells in a petri dish and you had the rates of infection we currently have among young people in terms of mental ill health, you would be questioning the quality of the culture you are using to grow the cells.

It’s time to heal, it’s time to connect. It’s time to take play seriously – to the next level – beyond the screen in 3D. In real life. For real.

As always – with love and gratitude.


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