The saddest thing I ever heard was a remark from the grown up, home educated daughter of a friend. She was shocked to observe children in a playground at a school. ‘They don’t seem to know how to play’ she said. Having had a play-filled childhood herself she found that terribly tragic. I do too. I’m passionate about play – you’ll have guessed in that post before last – but I wonder how many others realise its value.
In many households I’m aware that play has been replaced by entertaining kids in front of a screen. It’s safer. It’s easier. It’s quieter. And it makes no mess. All of benefit to busy parents. The tragedy is that the kids are missing out developmentally because of it. If you’re in doubt about that, there are a couple of articles here and here that might convince you otherwise.
Childhood play does not have to cost anything or even require toys, although they have their uses. You don’t need expensive outlays. In fact the best type is unstructured and evolves simply from a child exploring and experimenting with the things around them.
We used to collect anything with potential that came into our house – but you have to get in an imaginative frame of mind to see potential in the first place. You might not think there’s any reason to keep all those old yoghurt pots, boxes and bottle tops, but give a collection of things to a kid and you’ll be amazed what they do with them. And that’s what we want to encourage – the kind of imagination needed to create play with them. That’s what gets the brain working. And it needs to start when the kids are really young so they develop a play habit. As they grow their play will become more sophisticated and skilled. They are never too old to play and experiment. In fact, in the BBC4 programme ‘Beautiful Minds’ Nobel prize winner Andre Geim suggested that having a playful approach to science led him to make some of his most important discoveries (watch it here).
Explorative, investigative play is the most valuable kind. The ‘make it up as you go along’ type. There’s times you’ll need to be involved. And definitely times you should keep out of it even if you start the ball rolling. The less structured the toys are, the more inventive they have to be. When out one day and no toys to hand I remember our youngest ‘talking’ to dolls which were nothing more than two twigs next to her that she’d tucked up in leaves.
Kids want to explore their world – its properties and how they can manipulate it – they want to explore your world and do what you’re doing too. Play gives them the opportunity.
For example – if you’re cooking, they’ll want to cook. If they’re too small to be involved give them a selection of utensils similar to the ones you’re using and they’ll ‘cook’. Make a cooker out of an old box. Use pasta or water to stir and pour, weigh and tip from tub to bowl.
If you’re using tools, give them a selection of tools to use too and things to use them on (keep the old DVD player or let them unscrew an old plug!) Don’t let silly ideas of Health and Safety put you off – just use your common sense.
Here’s some things to collect for your kids to play with: plastic tubs, jugs, cartons, tops, bottles, utensils, wire, string, different papers, cardboard, bags, boxes large and small, tins, socks, (good for puppets or pairing in maths!) shoes. Old sheets, blankets, dressing up clothing (your old clothes!) fabrics, materials, braids and ribbons, magazines. Pots and pans, cups and plates, books, buttons, videos, CDs and DVDs, mobile phones and other gadgets. Foodstuffs; they love playing with flour, dry pasta, lentils and dry beans etc, mixing syrup and vinegar or anything. Corn flour and water’s a good one! Outside; soil, sand, bricks, wood, twigs, tyres, stones, pebbles, screws, bolts, leaves and stalks…one man’s junk is another kids’ pleasure.
Anything can be used to inspire play. Use recycling centres and charity shops to source stuff. Keep that imagination primed. Poundland is good if you’ve got a pound to spare because materials are cheap and you can afford to let them experiment rather than worry over how much glitter glue they’re using. But don’t stop in the stationary isle, look at all the foil plates, plastic beakers, tools, garden stuff. Don’t worry if their creations are unrecognisable – we’ve been through the over painted picture that resembles a mud bath – but creations shouldn’t be structured and tidy whatever big companies try and sell you in little packets. Messy and obscure creativity will develop into refined and practised skills and mental agility. It extends understanding of language and communication, maths and science and helps them understand their world.
Kids need play in wide open spaces as well as restricted places. They need individual play and social play. They need to experience the outdoors. Playing outdoors is where their connection to their planet starts and thus their responsibility for it.
Kids who’ve played and experimented with a wide range of materials and resources in a wide range of situations are confident, resourceful, skilled and adept at decision making and problem solving, very necessary skills for leading a successful and happy life.
A habit of imaginative play born in childhood is one of the most valuable and educative habits they could have. It is never a waste of time. Home schooling does not mean you need to be doing academic work all the time. Get them playing as much as you can. It’s probably a far more educative experience than any you’ll find in a workbook or on a screen. Let them have fun. And don’t let yours become children who haven’t been inspired to play. They’ll learn so much because of it.