Climb a tree.
Make mud pies.
Build a fort.
Invent a game that lasts for days.
Play in the rain.
Camp out on the trampoline.
How many of these do you remember doing as a child? Now look at the list again any tell me, when was the last time your children had a chance to do each of these things? I am really interested to know, how often do your children have time for real, free play? Do they have the opportunity to get messy or dirty? Do you tend to wrap them in cotton wool for fear they might hurt themselves?
There’s no denying our lives are busy. Work, school, after school activities, chores, household responsibilities, homework – they all compete for our time, and that of our children. As Immy is getting older and her outside-of-home/school interests take up more time, I am finding that it is harder to find regular blocks of time to dedicate to play. And in talking with other families, I know we are not alone. But making time for play is important for children of all ages, not just toddlers and preschoolers.
Fortunately, bringing back real play is easy to do. Giving our children a taste of the best bits of our own childhood simply requires a commitment to making it happen. We just have to loosen our grip on the schedule a little, relax and rediscover the truth that just a little sense of freedom goes a long way, and embrace a new set of ‘rules’ for childhood that really aren’t so new. They are more a nod to the rules of play from the childhood of yesteryear, and here are seven that I believe can make a big difference to the lives of today’s children.
Rule #1: Children need time outside, preferably every day
Spending regular time outside is vital to a child’s wellbeing. As well as developing a child’s physical skills, time outdoors promotes good physical and mental health. It also encourages imagination, creativity and confidence.
With the recent cooler weather here in Perth, my girls are loving being outdoors. Over the course of a recent four day weekend they spent virtually every moment at home playing in our backyard. Now our yard isn’t fancy. It has a bit of lawn, a trampoline, a small cubby house and some fruit trees but they are happy to create games with whatever is at hand, or they drag outside whatever it is they need for the game they are playing. Play doesn’t need to be fancy, just frequent and fun!
Every now and then I’ll add a little provocation to the yard in the hope that it will encourage my girls to spend more time in play. Like a few bamboo poles, old bed sheets and lengths of rope.
In just the first half an hour of play with this invitation I saw my children use skills of co-operation, negotiation, problem solving, leadership, finding and managing resources, perseverance and trial and error. I watched them use their bodies to tie knots, balance, crawl, climb and lift, and to engage all of their senses. They were creative, imaginative and confident. They were relaxed and having fun.
And the play sparked by this simple provocation has been going on for four days now and is still evolving!
Rule #2: Children need room for healthy risk taking
As I shared recently, children who take reasonable risks develop a strong sense of self awareness, confidence in their own abilities, perseverance and resilience. And kids take risks every day – when they go outside of their comfort zone and ask someone to play with them, or join a new sporting team or challenge themselves to ride faster or climb higher or master that handstand or cartwheel. Unfortunately, as parents we often put the brakes on when it comes to even the slightest element of risky play, wrapping our kids in cotton wool to keep them safe, rather than letting them learn to know their own limits.
Now, if you are anything like us, you don’t have any trees worth climbing or room for cycling in your own backyard. Much of our larger scale outdoor risk taking takes place on nature based outings or at local playgrounds while our healthy risk taking at home is more in the form of (trying to) ignore them jumping on the bed or off the couch, or turning a blind eye to a rowdy game of roughhousing or an excited round of Murder in the Dark. I’m working at rethinking the over cautioning and letting go so my children can learn to trust themselves – ironically, something they can only learn to do when they take risks!
Rule #3: Let them get dirty
While I know none of us exactly enjoy clearing the never ending mountain of laundry, I’ve always been of the opinion that it has to be washed anyway! So I try to take a yes more than no approach to my children’s requests to get messy. We make potions and mud pies, they help with the gardening and you know we just love all manner of art projects and sensory play.
To see what happens when kids aren’t free to play and get messy, check out this short film by Omo to illustrate the role of messy real play in children’s lives. It’s a step towards getting real play back on the agenda. I love the comment from one mum, “It made me feel extremely frustrated,” because that is exactly how our kids feel when we hold them back from play.
Play is messy, gosh who are we kidding, real life is messy! So I just keep reminding myself that as families we are all in the same boat and that a little bit of dirt or mess never hurt anyone, and as I watch my child launch herself at another muddy puddle in the playground you’ll most likely find me peeking through my fingers as I recite my mantra, “Well, it has to be washed anyway!”
Rule #4: Let them go barefoot
Going barefoot outside epitomizes childhood. Being barefoot awakens the senses, it helps children to walk and run and jump and balance more confidently and capably. My girls are pretty much permanently barefoot at home, inside and out. Yes, we’ve had bee stings and splinters and scrapes but our home is not littered with glass or any other particular sharp or hazardous obstacles (and to be honest, neither are most of our local playgrounds!) and my children have never needed anything stronger than an ice pack or band aid and a cuddle as a result of going barefoot. In fact, going barefoot strengthens the feet and leg muscles and improves agility, both of which are surely going to reduce the likelihood of harm rather than increase it.
Rule #5: Let them play with sticks
As I mentioned above, kids who are used to playing will play with whatever is at hand, and when playing outdoors that often means sticks and sand and rocks and water. The humble stick may well be considered the earliest toy known to man and in the eyes and hands of a child a stick transforms into a sword or magic wand, fishing rod or conductor’s baton. I even remember Immy regularly using sticks at the park to represent vacuum cleaners when she was about two and a half! Sticks and other simple loose parts invite a child to think and play creatively and imaginatively. In fact, adding a small collection of loose parts such as sticks or bamboo poles, stones, stumps, wood cookies, gum nuts (as well as sand and water) to your backyard is a fantastic, low cost way to invite your children to play.
Rule #6: The big kids rule (and the kids will work it out)
So the point is not that it is okay for the big kids to wield their power in a nasty or horrible manner but that our children will disagree and that they need space to work it out. Just as we did as children. I remember hanging around in tribes of cousins and siblings, some younger, some older and having to negotiate the game and the roles and the rules. In most cases, the older children made most of those decisions and the younger ones fell in line because they just wanted to be in the gang and part of the play, to feel that sense of connection and community. Sometime feelings were hurt and we would regularly fight and make up but we learnt to negotiate and cooperate, to have empathy for each other and to take care of the younger children in the group.
Children learn from playing with other kids in ways they simply can’t with adults. So we (the adults) need to create opportunities for our children to play with children of different ages, in different sized groups and then sit on our hands and let them get on with it.
Rule #7: Complex play takes time to develop but if you leave them to it, it will come
“Can I go outside?” was the first thing my daughter asked this morning, before we’d even had breakfast! It is the fifth day of what seems to have become their ‘adventure clubhouse building project’ and as I have observed their play over the last few days it has been clear to see it becoming more involved and complex. And the thing about complex play is that often it looks like absolutely nothing to the adult observer. Which is quite possibly why we under value the potential of play so much?
Complex play involves rules and negotiations and conversation. It develops personal and social competencies in authentic ways that organised activities cannot. Complex play needs time and space and children, children of all ages who are ready and willing to play.
Play really is the language of childhood. We, the adults, have to learn to listen to what is being said.
Would you add any ‘rules’ to my list?