Could we all benefit from rediscovering real play?

When I facilitate workshops for parents on playful parenting, the most interesting part has always been asking groups of parents to think about what play is and what they played with as children.

The volume in the room increases, they become more animated and they start smiling and laughing - that is the power of play coming back. They are remembering how it felt, the joy they had from those times.

Even when we just spend some time thinking about something fun we can reduce the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in our brains. When parents begin to relate their playful times to me, so much of took place outdoors- making dens, climbing trees, water fights, making potions, or involved imaginative role play- playing school, doctors, putting on shows. All these activities are proven to activate the seeking system in our brains, increasing our curiosity and appetite for life.

Sadly, when I then ask them about how their children play now, a lot of parents note that their children play mostly on some form of technology. There is a huge decline in imaginative play and children are missing out.

As a Play Therapist I have witnessed children as young as six arriving into my playroom for the first time and asking where my Xbox is. Parents tell me that they have put the toys in the attic - the children only play on their Playstations. What I have also witnessed is these same children becoming engrossed in very imaginative play after only a few weeks of being in the playroom.

While there is certainly a place for technology in our lives (and children should be allowed a certain amount of access to this), it should not be taking away from time spent outdoors, or indoors playing by themselves or with siblings or friends. In spontaneous, non-directed play, children are learning the skills for life- decision making, problem solving, coordination and communication. They are building their ability to empathise with others, their self-esteem and confidence and their creativity.

Another observation I've made in my work with parents is that children are over-scheduled, doing lots of after school activities and actually not having the time to play. Thinking back on their own childhoods, adults often relate that the most exciting activities came out of times when they were bored and came up with a new idea. Children need to have time to just be, to discover for themselves the hobbies that they enjoy.

It is really important that children feel that home is their secure base, a place of stability. However, kids are spending a lot less time at home; they are rushing from structured activities to organised “playdates” and not spending as much time finding things that they enjoy doing within their own homes. Having all their activities organised may be depriving them of finding their inner motivation for things that they enjoy.

Children learn so much from parents as role models. We, as parents, need to show our children that play is important for us to. When I say “play” I mean whatever activity you might see as being your “play”- something that you do without a purpose in mind, just purely for enjoyment. If you find it hard to think of something, spend some time thinking about the things you used to enjoy as a child or adolescent. You may rediscover the joy you experience from reading, writing, drawing, colouring, dancing, singing, knitting, being creative. Why not make a habit of having some time everyday to do something that you enjoy, just for you? The more that you activate your own sense of play, the more you will be reducing stress levels in your body, helping to bring you to a calmer place for being with your children.

Dr. Stuart Brown the founder of the National Institute of Play states that “the beneficial effects of just a little true play can spread through our lives, actually making us more productive and happier in everything we do”. So why not decide to have a few hours technology free? You may be delighted with the discoveries both you and your children make when left to your own devices.