“Play is the highest expression of human development in childhood, for it alone is the free expression of what is in a child’s soul.” – Friedrich Froebel

In our busy lives dominated by hectic schedules, long commutes and too much screen time, ‘playtime’ often falls by the wayside – for children and parents alike! However, just like eating right and exercising fuels the body and mind, play is an important part of human development and for children, play plays a pivotal role in ensuring they grow up to be well-balanced and successful in life.

Why is play important?
Play is more than just fun for children – it is how they learn and explore the world around them. Early childhood play also develops qualities like creativity, imagination, spontaneity, and trust.

“The American Academy of Pediatrics describes play as vital to a child’s development as it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social and emotional well-being of children,” say René Ohlhoff and Louise Patrick from Baby Bonding.

On the other hand, play deprivation has a detrimental effect on brain development. Research has shown that as there has been a decline in children’s opportunity for free (unstructured) play, so there has been a rise in child mental health problems. Ohlhoff and Patrick explain: “Studies of play deprivation have revealed that when children are not given adequate opportunity to play they lose their ability to care for, empathise with and show compassion towards others; they lack the ability to control their actions and follow rules; and they lack the ability to make friends and work co-operatively with others on equal footing.”

The role of parents in play
“While toys do help to stimulate play and encourage exploration and learning, they can never replace the value of one-on-one human interaction,” comments Liz Senior, Occupational Therapist and Founder of Clamber Club. “As your child’s favourite playmate – at least in the early years – you will not just be a parent, but a fellow explorer as they begin to adventure through life,” she adds.

“When parents become a true partner in play, as opposed to an instructor of play, they become the most powerful medium for their child to play their way to success in all areas of their functioning,” conclude Ohlhoff and Patrick.

“Children don’t need more things. The best toys a child can have is a parent who gets down on the floor and plays with them.” – Bruce Perry.

How to encourage and promote play
René Ohlhoff and Louise Patrick from Baby Bonding offer the following tips:

• Understand playtime
Play is about really connecting with your child through one-on-one interaction by using your own creative ideas, objects, or movement. Anything from playing peek-a-boo to building a puzzle together qualifies as play.

• Provide an adequate play space
This does not necessarily need to be a large space but should provide the opportunity for movement and exploration.

• Provide your child with a broad range of play possibilities
Children benefit most when given a wide variety of opportunities for exploration. Play in different environments – indoors and outdoors, and provide as varied a selection of toys as possible. Encourage solitary play as well as group play, and vary the intensity – from calm, quiet play to noisy, active play.

• Play on your child’s level
When you get down on the ground to play with your child you become their partner and ally in the game. You become part of their story, a co-author, as opposed to director, narrator or reader.

• Stay attuned to your child
Learn to tell when your child is calm, alert and ready to engage in play. Be careful to notice when your child has had enough, for example, when they seem bored, overstimulated or tired, and be sure to end your playtime there.

• Let your child lead
Resist the urge to control or direct your child’s play. Allowing your child the freedom to go wherever their imagination or heart desires, with you alongside them, will give them the security they need to explore their world and grow.

“Play is the language of childhood. Speaking our children’s language may sound like nonsense to us, but it sounds like love to them.” – L.R. Knost, author Two Thousand Kisses a Day.