Most of us look back on our childhood and fondly remember long days playing with friends, climbing trees and jumping in puddles, all without an adult in sight. Are children today are losing out on this vital free time?
It will come as no surprise to read that most children love getting out, away from mum and dad. Even an afternoon in the local park (perhaps with an adult discreetly tucked away on a distant bench) gives them a sense of independence as they explore all the nooks and crannies at their own leisure.
Drinking tea made out of rainwater, going to sea on an old chair and a sheet, camping in deepest darkest jungle… This is child’s play. Give them the time to invent new scenarios or to use old materials for the wackiest of projects and they’ll be happy for hours. Not just happy, but learning valuable new skills as well.
Patricia Lewsley, Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People, says: “Play is a vital part of children’s development, contributing to social and educational skills, and has benefits in terms of improved physical development, such as reducing the risk of obesity and improving emotional well-being.
“Safe, engaging and appropriate facilities must be designed, taking into account the views and experiences of young people themselves, not just handed down from on high.”
Ruth Sinclair, director of the Northern Irish branch of the National Children’s Bureau, agrees. She says that all children need the time and space to play: “It allows them to explore the world around them, extend their interests and abilities, experiment with social and emotional relationships, develop their physical and motor skills and - most importantly for them - have fun and be creative.
“Recent research also indicates that children’s free play is important in brain development and cognitive understanding. Playing is important throughout a child’s growth and development, it keeps them healthy and active and it can help them deal with difficult or painful circumstances. All children and young people, from birth to adulthood, need time to spend in activities that they themselves have chosen – without direction and interference from adults.”
Siobhan Fitzpatrick, chief executive of Early Years, supports the idea of more free time for unstructured play. She makes the point that play can be too structured, children learn best when they can decide what they want to do. The teacher or day care worker needs the skills to facilitate this.
She says: “Every young child learns in a different way and pace and over structuring this process can affect the benefits of education through play. Free imaginative play can be particularly important for children to learn how to manage risk, a life skill preparation.”
But, no matter how much we idealise that precious free time that we had when we were youngsters, or how enthusiastic we are about the benefits of play, sometimes we just can’t give our children the same thing.
More children are spending an increasing amount of time in school: in the morning they’re left into breakfast clubs, from 9am to 3pm they’re in the classroom, then they move to after-school clubs until perhaps, 6pm. That’s about nine hours in an educational setting. Of course, this is more ideal than spending hours alone in the house, and the teachers and volunteers who work in the school clubs are dedicated, hard-working individuals. However, the fact remains that for a significant part of the day, children’s play is directed and structured.
As more children spend more time on the school premises, the quality of school playgrounds matters more. A well-designed, inspiring playground can make the difference between a child who is inattentive and poorly behaved because they have too much energy, and one who is alert and motivated. Teachers have also noticed that providing low-cost, traditional play equipment such as skipping ropes and skittles not only improves behaviour, but also cuts down on arguments and scuffles in the playground.
The Play Quest project, run by Playboard – a Northern Ireland-based agency which advocates the child’s right to play – aims to help children take control in play. By making their own decisions, they not only become more confident and creative but they also gain valuable social skills.
Roisin McCooey, Play Quest regional manager, says: “The project focuses on decision-making with children up to 10-years-old, so that when they play they learn to make their own decisions. When children direct their own play we’ve found time and time again that they become more motivated. Our aim is to promote a healthy lifestyle and to encourage children to take control of their own lives.
“The Play Quest team, which consists of myself and four other rangers, goes out to a variety of settings and spends up to one week working there: we go to primary schools, playgroups, in fact at the moment we’re working at a women’s aid centre. We create imaginative play spaces using whatever materials are at hand to inspire creativity. Another part of the work involves introducing traditional games that may have been forgotten by children in the community.”
Due to pressure to perform well in national tests, many parents feel obliged to turn the family home into an extension of school. Time that would once have been spent playing is now devoted to completing homework or work for tutors. Academics refer to this as the ‘scholarisation of childhood’ and are concerned about the effects it may have if children don’t develop the ability to ‘think outside the box’ that comes through play.
This presents us as parents with a dilemma: to what extent should we protect children from its incursions and how far should we to help them engage with its agenda? Legislation regarding the child’s right to free time aside, parents have an important function in helping their children have some playtime. Take a moment to think about how much time your child has to play. Are you in danger of damaging your child’s curiosity with too much structured, supervised play? How far do you consider the use of technology (television, internet, video games) as constituting free time?
Roisin McCooey, PlayQuest regional manager, says: “I think time spent watching TV or playing computer games can be part of playtime, but in the case of younger children up to about 10 years old, the focus should be on a lot of interaction. When the Play Quest team goes out to work with a group of children, I can see that the children don’t just watch what’s going on: they’re much more active and it’s a lot more exciting for them. They become involved rather than being transfixed.”