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Not Just Child’s Play,
Article by Dr Ola Ahmed, Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychologist

When parents attend the clinic with concerns about their young child, they are often surprised when the topic of play arises. This surprise appears to stem from the implicit views many of us hold about the limited value of play. Indeed, common definitions of play will refer to how it is activities enjoyed by children without any serious purpose. However, a growing body of research in fields of child development and education paints a very different picture. It indicates that play in an essential component of healthy child development, contributing to gains in cognitive, physical, social and emotional skills over time. In fact, the significance of play is such that it has been recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights (UNHCR) as a basic right of every child.

Early in life, play is the means by which children explore and interact with their environment. Ready access to stimulating and varied toys in early years supports healthy brain development. As children grow, and their play develops in complexity; play supports the development of important social and emotional skills, including learning to share, negotiate, follow rules and make decisions.

Child-led play, which involves parents or carers, brings additional benefits. When children make decisions regarding what and how to play with parents, play moves at their own pace following their unique interests, which in turn supports the child’s creativity. Regular child directed play fosters strong parent-child relationships, a factor which is protective in children’s mental health and well-being. When playing with their child, parents are better able to see the world through the eyes of their child, which can contribute to more effectiveness and warmth in parenting practices. Regular, child-led play also involves high-quality positive attention from parents, and fosters clearer, more nurturing communication patterns.

Making time for play is serious business. However, playtime is increasingly at risk, with families leading busy and fast paced lifestyles and education systems increasingly focusing on academics at the expense of free time to play at school. So, what can you do to help your child reap the full benefits of play?

  • It’s important to note that digital play (on a tablet or games console) limits the benefits of play, particularly those related to physical and social development. Allow these activities, but establish age-appropriate time limits.
  • Offer enticing non-digital play options at home e.g. board games, sports equipment, construction toys, and props for imaginative play.
  • Encourage and reward interactive and cooperative play with other children. Organise play-dates where possible.
  • Make time, no matter how brief this may be to join in with your child’s play on a regular basis, letting them direct the interaction.