Business 365 Issue 5

We all worry that our kids aren’t learning enough to prepare them for life. But do we really need to? Eleanor Miklos, practitioner at The Children’s Centre, explores the importance of play for children.

When J.K. Rowling was young, she lived in a land of make-believe .Playing unsupervised along the banks of the River Wye with her sister, she told stories of a rabbit - named, quite logically, Rabbit - who caught the measles and visited his friend, a giant bee named Miss Bee. Later, at school, she made up heroic stories of daring deeds and told them to her friends at lunchtime.

Psychologists believe that Rowling, in creating this intense and absorbing world of fantasy, was building a 'learning laboratory'. She was flexing storytelling muscles that would allow her to create the Harry Potter franchise - and to become one of the world's richest authors. She was also an ordinary child playing.

So play is important, useful even. Many well-known writers spent their childhoods in a world of make-believe, warming up for brilliance in their adult careers. But what's that got to do with us?

Play at The Children's Centre

When children are very young, play enables children to build brain function and meet developmental milestones (80% of brain development is completed by the age of three). But that doesn't mean that only young children benefit from imaginative games.

Play allows children to create and explore a world they can master. It can give them a space to conquer their fears and practise adult roles. Practitioners at The Children's Centre use play to enable, and they do it in some interesting ways:

Playing with mountain bikes on a track in a plantation encourages teamwork and builds resilience; creative wood and metal work develop perseverance and focus; mucking about in the field with our goats encourages empathy and helps children to develop trusting relationships.

The benefits to play are endless; it can even help to support those who are struggling emotionally.

Play as therapy

Because play puts children in control, it is invaluable to child and adolescent mental health services. Some young people who come to The Children's Centre will be referred to a licensed therapist for play therapy.

As children play, they become less guarded and more likely to share their feelings. Play therapy allows children to communicate at their own pace and through their own language. Through play therapy, children can explore their emotions, deal with unresolved trauma, and learn coping mechanisms.

Play for children now

Play looks pretty different these days. Over lockdown, kids' rooms and kitchen tables fell victim to the merciless advance of the apparatus of online learning: laptops, printer paper, Sharpies, ancient calculators and the one household rubber that's never where you left it.

A friend of mine was walking up her road the other day and noticed two young boys playing with a ball in their garden. They were watched over by their mum (I picture her with that hungry look that we all now unconsciously wear when anyone we know walks past our house). She noticed that her children were observed and called out, through a strained smile, "It's ok, they've done their online learning!!"

This anecdote got me wondering... where do we get the idea that school, online or otherwise, is the way our children learn useful and presumably marketable skills, and that play is fun - but a waste of time? And that learning should be painful or it somehow doesn't 'count'.

English paediatrician and psychologist, Donald Winnicott had something to say on the matter. He believed that we should redefine our idea of what it means to play. To Winnicott, play is any activity that makes you feel real, spontaneous and alive, anything that finds you keenly interested in what you're doing.

So . . . do adults play? Well, yes, as it turns out

Adults play by making art, by playing sports, or by tinkering in the garage (I have a suspicion that there may be some people who even play with spreadsheets) - and it is at these times, when your interest is keenly engaged, that you are most likely to learn a new skill.

So play isn't separate from learning - it's essential to it. Not only that, it's the one time at which we can be truly ourselves. It's also a simple joy that no person, young or old, should be without.

Still stressing about your kids spending too much time on Minecraft, or that they won't stop doodling or raiding the recycling for cardboard boxes and plastic bottles to tape together? Really, don't. Sit down with them and watch
what they're doing. Who knows? Maybe you'll learn something

How can you help?

There are many ways you can support our work.

  • £3,000 per day to run our charitable programmes
  • £7 benefit for every £1 spent on Thriving families programme
  • 40% of local children and young people engaged in our services
  • 16 groups of all ages hosted at the Farm each week