A recent study carried out by Fairfax Media has found that parents rate free, unstructured play above parent-led playtime, even though they believe free play requires more effort on their part than parent-led play.
That’s just one of the findings from a piece of research that sought to quantify attitudes of Australian parents to the importance of play. The study, which surveyed 555 parents, found that mums and dads ranked nutrition and sleep as being the areas of child-rearing necessitating the greatest amount of effort, followed by learning/education and free-play. Parent-led playtime came fifth.
Both types of play were ranked as less important than nutrition, sleep and learning/education. This trend is seen across parents regardless of their or their child’s age, though the perception of play’s importance increases as children grow older.
Why play matters
Play is important for children for a number of reasons. In 1989 the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights officially recognised play as a basic right for every child, but more than that, it’s how our children learn about the world and gain the skills that they need to function in it.
Dr Suzy Green is a Coaching and Clinical Psychologist and the founder of The Positivity Institute. She says that play is important for a host of reasons. “Play is essential to the social, emotional, cognitive, and physical well-being of children beginning in early childhood. It’s also an important tool for children to develop resiliency as they learn to cooperate, overcome challenges, and negotiate with others. Play also allows children to be creative. It provides time for parents to be fully engaged with their children, to bond with their children, and to see the world from the perspective of their child.”
How we rate play
Putting play behind nutrition, sleep and education doesn’t mean parents aren’t investing time into play. On average, parents responding to the survey said that they spend an average of two hours and 12 minutes per day in active play with their child. Parent-led play peaks for children aged seven to 12 months, with these parents indicating that they spend more than three hours a day on average playing with their child of this age.
In terms of the type of play in which they are engaged, outdoor play – in a park or garden, rather than on play equipment – ranked highest. This was followed by play with blocks and ball games, and it was the toddlers aged 19 to 24 months who were most engaged with outdoor play.
When it comes to attitudes to play, parents recognise its importance. Nearly all parents – some 97 per cent – agreed that playing with their child was vital for their infant’s development and more than three quarters said that making time to play with their child was a high priority. A similar amount of parents – 72 per cent – indicated that improving the way they play with their child was a high priority.
Don’t let play become a chore
Worryingly, nearly half of all parents feel like they don’t play with their child as much as they should, with these feelings highest in parents of children 13 to 18 months old.
Dr Ginni Mansberg, GP, author and resident doctor on Channel 7’s Sunrise program, thinks part of this is down to the way society has changed over the last 100 years.
“Families are different now,” she says. “More mothers are going back to work, there are more single parent households, and there is a decrease in the importance of grandparents and extended family. Part of that is because cost of housing is so much higher and being a single income family makes housing unaffordable in many of our cities.”
The lack of free-play for children is also concerning for Dr Ginni, who believes there is too much pressure on parents to ensure their children are learning at every opportunity which means the chance to learn from freeform play is missed. “Children are not learning soft skills,” says Dr Ginni. “Our kids are lacking skills like relating to others, problem-solving, organisational skills, learning to read others. Kids develop those skills from play together, negotiating and problem-solving. Lots more intervention from parents mean they’re not learning those soft skills that are so important because so much of what we do with our kids is tightly structured.”
Relax and enjoy
For Dr Ginni, the beauty of play is that it’s a chance for parents to engage with their child in a relaxed, unstructured manner.
“There’s a lot more structure for children in their days,” she says. “There is increasing pressure to have x number of learnings from every activity and as a result children are getting less time to play. Before they even begin school there is pressure on parents to get them into kinder gym and kinder music classes and this results in increasingly structured time between parent and child.”
She believes that giving kids the chance to take the lead in play has huge benefits. “We don’t want parents getting in there making the rules and directing the play, but sometimes it’s hard to let kids be in charge. For this reason, it maybe easier if they do this type of play with other kids, but parents can really enjoy it if they let go of control.”
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