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The importance of children's play

Child on climbing frame
Play helps a child develop their creative abilities, and takes them into a fun, positive and imaginative world where anything is possible. We explore the benefits of play and offer top tips on how you can encourage all the family to join in.

All children participate in creative play, and seven year-old Adam is no different. He darts across the lounge, crashes to his knees, and then rolls over the sofa cushions that litter the floor. As he positions himself between the turned-up legs of the coffee table to get a good view of the enemy advancing, it is clear that he’s engaged in some serious play.

At that point mum, Sharon, enters the room and almost throws a fit. “Adam!” she snaps. “Put those cushions back on the sofa! Can’t you see I’m trying to tidy up.”

To Adam’s mother he’s created a mess; to Lieutenant General Adam World it’s up to him to save the world and little else could be more important.

This is a fine example of the ‘Peter Pan syndrome’. In Steven Spielberg's 1991 sequel, Hook, a stern and grown-up Peter Pan is forced to return to Neverland to fight Captain Hook but has no power because his imagination has completely shut down. If Peter is to save his children from the evil Hook he must rediscover that special place inside where wonder and imagination lives.

Similarly, as parents, we sometimes need little reminders from our children to stop, kick off our shoes and get into the mindset of being a child.

Why imaginative play matters

Nineteenth century literary critic George Bernard Shaw said, “We don't stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” And we can all remember, as children, pastimes that used to occupy us for hours on end but now seem incomprehensible.

But child development experts all agree that play is a child’s ‘work’ – it’s the job they do to each day. And they take it very seriously.

Play develops children’s physical, emotional, social, mental and creative abilities. It helps them practise hand eye coordination, to develop the physical agility to run, jump, walk and balance.

Through play a child learns the social etiquette of taking turns, developing awareness of other people’s views and feelings. Plus they learn how to problem solve and develop curiosity and intellect.

Not sure that you actually remember how to play yourself? Ash Perrin, founder of The Flying Seagull Project (entertainers and musicians who have travelled to 23 countries touching the lives of 115K children in orphanages, refugee camps and hospitals), believes Real Play is the answer. "Real Play needs no expertise or qualifications. It just needs you, the kids and a big bag full of glowing, loving, positive ENERGY. The opportunity to share good times and be happy together really does lie in our own hands."

If you want to set up a family joke-telling club, an Intergenerational, Three-legged Monster Race, splatter paint to thrash metal, ramp up the energy by shaking like a rubber chicken or zap bad moods with the Turkey Hat Grump Destroyer, Ash's book The Real Play Revolution: Why We Need to Be Silly with Our Kids - and How to Do It offers plenty of inspiration.

The child's guide to play (by children, for adults)

Working with child expert Dr Pat Spungin, the Toy and Hobby Association asked 1,000 primary school children what advice they would give to their parents to try to make play more fun. Here are their top 10 tips:

  1. Spend one-on-one time together with us children. Make time to play, spend more uninterrupted time together, give each child special time.
  2. Go to the park and play sports together, such as football, cricket and catch, and go on a bike ride.
  3. Play board games, cards or puzzles as a family
  4. Adults should spend less time on the computer and on the housework!
  5. Play games such a piggy in the middle, chase, hide and seek and skipping.
  6. Days out together to the zoo, museum, theatre, cinema and bowling.
  7. Bake and cook together.
  8. Make things and doing arts and crafts, such as painting, pottery, writing stories or making face masks
  9. Parents: come home from work earlier!
  10. Be funny, playful and silly by telling jokes. Be more impulsive, laugh more and jump in puddles!
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