Climbing trees, making mud pies, playing catch … the way kids ‘play’ has changed a lot in just one generation. And it’s not necessarily all good news.
Parents are busier than ever, juggling work and family commitments, while ‘’screen time’’ and other sedentary activities are creeping in, keeping the kids occupied for increasingly longer periods of time. And, according to Dr Suzy Green, Founder and CEO of The Positivity Institute, global leaders in the growing field of evidence-based Positive Education for children, parents and schools, it’s at the expense of ‘real play’. “This is having a negative impact on our children’s development,” explains Dr Green. “In fact, recent research shows that Australian kids are growing up in a world where real play time is in severe decline.”
‘Real play’ includes activities that require things like imagination, improvisation, physical activity and fresh air. “Games like peek-a-boo, hide and seek and making mud pies are not only fun for young children, but they help develop their confidence and encourage creativity and problem solving, as well as having many other psychological, emotional, cognitive, social and immunologically benefits.”
Dr Green says it’s pivotal parents actively bring back the magic of real play to Aussie children. “Research shows that almost half of children aged five to 12 spend just over one hour of ‘real play’ per day. Alarmingly, this is one third less time than their parents spent at that age, a drop of 36 per cent in a single generation. As parents, we need to work together to put real play firmly back on the family agenda, as without it, there will be a significant impact on their social and emotional development.”
The good news? Putting a smile on your parenting dial and injecting a little fun play time into your- and your child’s life is just the cure. And it can have both immediate and long-term benefits that are hugely positive for your little one.
Here, Dr Green shares five positive ways parents can harness the power of play and support their child’s development. Ready, set, fun!
- Have freestyle fun outdoors!
Throw the instructional manual out and free ball it! Get outside, take a backseat and observe as your child explores rocks, smells the flowers, builds dirt cities and fairy gardens or creates superhero bases! Let them make the rules and if boredom sets in, give them little prompts to kickstart play. “Academic research shows that unstructured outdoor play is crucial for normal emotional, social and psychological development in children as it enables children to develop critical life skills such as independence, confidence and resilience,” explains Dr Green.
The benefits don’t stop there. Climbing trees, making mud pies and playing in dirt can even help build kid’s immunity. Dr Green says that there is a growing body of research that suggests exposure to soil bacteria plays an important role in developing a strong immune system, as well as improving mental health. One study by researchers from Bristol University and University College London discovered that a friendly bacteria commonly found in soil activates brain cells to produce serotonin, which also has strong anti-depressant effects.
- Take (calculated) risks
Are you a helicopter parent? A whopping 33 per cent of Australian parents admit to ‘cotton wooling’ their kids for fear they might hurt themselves or get dirty, according to a recent Dirt Is Good study. According to Dr Green, it’s counter-productive parenting. “Significant amounts of research have identified that a lack of opportunity for children to take risks may result in them growing up over-cautious in everyday situations, and be unable to judge potentially dangerous situations,” she explains. “Challenge and risk in outdoor play allows kids to test their physical, intellectual and social development. Playing in the great outdoors is also a perfect setting for children to develop resiliency.”
Dr Green says types of ‘risky play’ might include activities where kids have to navigate height, balance, speed, outdoor elements like tree climbing, jumping off a rock, climbing or rough and tumble play. “Alarmingly, one in three Australian kids have never climbed a tree, but as parents we need to work together to put the traditional real play activities back on the agenda. Through negotiating these challenges involved in real play, children learn to cooperate, develop confidence and negotiate with others.”
Sound too risky? Start small and think ‘age appropriate’ baby steps! Your toddler might not be ready for the climbing equipment, but that doesn’t mean he can’t jump off the sofa onto a cushioned landing or practice forward rolls!
3. Rock and role play!
Parents, pop on your favourite superhero costume! Feel silly? How about some more ‘real life’ style role play games, like shopping, playing vets or bringing your little one’s teddy to life through actions and words? Role play, where your little one may pretend to be mummy, daddy, or the doctor, and fantasy play, such as fairies and spells, magical princesses, superheroes and space travellers, are great for children’s emotional development and expression.
“Emotions can be expressed and managed through role play,” explains Dr Green. “Fantasy or imaginative play, in particular, has been identified as the most therapeutic, allowing children to uncover and address painful feelings and conflicts with others, as well as scenarios they have experienced.”
Say for example you took your injured cat to the vet for medical attention, your child may role play that experience to understand what was happening to her pet, the vet’s role of caring, and how this made them feel – understanding the experience and their emotions.
Or, you could just have fun. “Pop on some dress ups and pull out some props – have fun with your child and encourage them to use their imagination and express themselves,” says Dr Green.
4. Act like a child
Parenting can be so, well, boring sometimes! Being responsible for getting the kids dressed, bath time, seat belts, breakfast…! Wouldn’t it be nice if parents could shake off the responsibility and let the little one take the lead for a change?
Go for it! Get on the ground so you’re at their level and let them make the rules. They’ll have to draw on their imagination and get creative, but in the process, they’ll learn to lead, create narratives, practice social interaction, empathise and much more. “Research shows that children who are able to play freely with their peers and parents develop skills for seeing things through another person’s point-of-view, for cooperating, helping, sharing, and solving problems,” explains Dr Green. “Research also tell us that children who have opportunities to play have stronger friendships and are more joyful, secure and co-operative.”
5. Get those fine- and gross motor skills working
Sitting in front of a screen requires no movement; and an excessive sedentary childhood can be detrimental, impacting the development of fine and gross motor skills. “Recent studies have found that between 4 to 10 per cent of children aged under five years are not meeting physical activity guidelines that suggest engaging in 180 minutes of physical activity a day,” warns Dr Green “A large Australian study found that today’s physical activity for both boys and girls was significantly lower than it was 30 years ago.”
The cure? Real play. Summon your inner child and relive all the childhood laughter, games and outdoor activities you experienced with your little ones. Play really is a powerful thing…
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