I have written about the importance of play in previous Baby and Child issues and will continue to do so as often as I can. This is because I am slightly obsessed with play: the importance thereof, the impact it has on our children in terms of development and skills and the opportunities it offers for emotional development. Play is ever changing, yet it is as it has been for centuries. As our lifestyles and societal demands change, so do we see the change in how our children engage in play.

The term ‘21st Century’ thinking has become a buzzword among educators, therapists and parents. People speak of needing to prepare our children for jobs which have not yet been created, for making them ready for a different world to one which we grew up in, and leaving behind models of learning we have used for many years. Our children today have technology at their fingertips and access to any piece of information they require. This is an awesome thought: no need to look through libraries or encyclopaedias for answers, no spending time asking family and teachers for support… everything is one click away. There are benefits in such access to information and the direction our children are taking, however let us not forget about what got our society to this point, old school play.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recently issued a statement on toys, advising parents of young children to go for “high quality traditional (that is physical) toys, rather than elaborate digital one”. They go on to say that the cognitive and developmental advantages of toys that give children scope for imagination and invention are far superior than their digital counterparts.

The coalition P21 (Partnership for 21st Century Learning) has identified four ‘Skills for Today’: In understanding what we need for ‘21st Century Thinking’ and education, we also need to reflect on how ‘Old School Play’ builds these skills. To focus on technology and future thinking only, would not lead us to the same place as bringing in good ‘ol play in the dirt, that got us this far. I find that the “Four Skills” discussed are vital for future thinkers and in understanding how play, as it always has been, integrates in to these concepts, we can marry past and present for well rounded children, who will become well-rounded socially aware adults.

“Four Skills for Today”

1. Creativity:

Creativity is about thinking through information in new ways, making new connections and coming up with innovative solutions to problems.

Remember when your parents or teachers would give you a bunch of scrap boxes,left over crayons and glue and tell you to go play? Just as you would say I’m bored”, you would have a parent telling you that word does not exist. I remember that. Well, they had good reason for this. They were teaching you to be creative with your resources, to make a plan with what you have and to think outside ‘the box’ to create rocket ships, dolls houses, treasure boxes and more. These skills go far beyond helping a child from ‘I’m bored’ to ‘look what I made’. Using your creativity and coming up with new and novel ideas could be said to be a foundation for leadership and entrepreneurial skills.


The child that can make something from nothing, can come up with fantasy stories where children follow like the lost boys in Peter Pan and are able to transform the ordinary to extraordinary, seem to be the sort of people in the world who create the technologies we rely on, and began the companies that changed the way we engage in the world. I cannot imagine the Steve Jobs of the world, sitting trying to ‘Google’ the answer, they were the ones taking old show boxes and creating the answer.

For children to be able to express their creativity fully, they need to have the freedom to do so.

Top Tips to encourage creative play:

  • Less toys leads to more play: the toys of today are often uni-functional. They a have a button that makes some thing happen in one way, they are confined to a certain theme or gender and do not require much thought or creativity. Think about prioritizing the basics in your toy selection such as blocks, dough and cars to stimulate imagine and creative play. Turn these items in to roads, bridges, castles, doctors rooms and more for roles playing and imagination. Decreasing the amount of toys available, also means that children can use the toys in different ways. You can then rotate ‘new’ toys in and ‘used’ ones out every week. Your children will be delighted with all the ‘new’ toys available to them, ones that they probably forgot about.
  • Dress up and become someone new. Allow your children to use old clothes, kitchen towels or real dress up sets to become anything they can imagine. Enter in to this play with them and go on a journey following their lead. This builds independent thinking, leadership skills and imagination. Role playing is also a fantastic way to work thought tough questions and emotional challenges your child may be going through.

  • GIVE CHILDREN TIME: It was Jean Piaget who so famously said the creativity was born out of boredom. Mom, Occupational Therapist and Blogger, Ann, from littleworldsbigadventures.com explains so beautifully how “somehow the days of entertaining yourself or hanging out with siblings while mommy does her jobs around the house have turned into organised activities and scheduled play dates. With the rise of technological gadgets, children are always and easily entertained. It’s tempting to get onto that bandwagon, I get that, but it doesn’t do your child any favours”. We need to allow our children to be bored, to play without time constraints and to engage in what may seem to be ‘random’ ideas. Slowly but surely children will discover (or re-discover) what it means to get lost in play, and what greater gift can we give them than time to do just that.
  • There is a lot of work and reading around the “Loose Parts Theory.” Architect Simon Nicholson developed the Theory of Loose Parts; the idea that loose parts, materials which can be moved around, designed and redesigned, and tinkered with; create infinitely more opportunities for creative engagement than static materials and environments. How do we practically put this in place? Having containers with buttons, beads, playdough, sticks, toiler roll inners, laces, ribbons etc are open and explored by children to build, make, design and tinker with. Sometimes there may be an end product, others it may be purely for exploration and self-expression.

2. Critical thinking:

Critical thinking is about analysing information and critiquing assertions.
It is about second guessing what we know and problem solving different, new or adaptive ways to complete the same task. In Occupational Therapy we speak a lot about “Motor Planning”, the ability to learn new and novel task. It is the ability to come up with an idea, carry it out and then problem solve should it not have worked, so that the next trial is more successful. I am often astounded by how many children are not able to motor plan and do not have the ability to think critically. It is often that these same children are not able to carry out basic tasks independently and rely on adults to figure things out for them, provide the answers or complete a task for them. We use language carefully in building children’s critical thinking and the following phrases may be helpful when playing with children and they become ‘stuck’ with a task.

We guide children using question words, allowing them to problem solve and think differently about how to get from a to b. In play, allow your child to lead, follow and lead again. Let them try make decisions about how a task could be completed or where the building of their creations should go. Use the following phrase to help them get passed a block when they turn to you to complete the task for them, or come up with the next idea:
1. “Where could we start”
2. “What comes next?”
3. “Hmm, I wonder where it could go/what we could do”
4. “You seem to be unsure, I wonder how we could work it out together”

These words foster critical thinking and will stand any child, and adult in good stead when unsure how to proceed in any given direction. It allows a child to understand that there is no set answer and the possibilities of how to go forward are not limited. Again, I feel that those business people who have built empires, probably use these phrases on a daily basis to get to where they need to be.

3 And 4. Communication and Collaboration:

I recently watched children playing in a sandpit. They had blocks, spades and various toys and tools at their disposal. The ranking of the eldest children as leader, and younger ones as followers, seemed so natural. While there were directors and do-ers, there was also collaboration in ideas, team work to carry out the project and joint joy when things worked out. There was also a lot of laughter! I sat there in awe. These little beings were talking to one another, sharing ideas and space, and together changed the sand pit from a space, to a creation.

Lest us consider what ideas we could come up with if we weren’t on our phones, working in isolation and trying to compete with everyone around us. These children know what it is to communicate for a shared joy at the end. Through play they navigated social norms and worked as a team. These skills are not taught on apps and classes, these are the emotional and social skills we learn only through play and interactions.
So with this in mind, I encourage you to set aside the beliefs and ideals that to create a 21st Century thinker, we need to use 21st century technology and enrol our children in coding courses. Take a step back, take off your shoes, put down your phones, and engage in Old School Play, in order to build creative, critical thinkers, who will be the leaders in the 21st century.

Contributed by Nicole Katzenellenbogen, occupation therapist and Clamber Club Expert.