It is common knowledge for us adults that children like to play. Yet in recent years, play has become a hot topic. Cambridge University in England has appointed a ‘professor of play,’ a researcher tasked with exploring the links between play and learning. Many preschools have adopted a play-based curriculum. Classrooms now often include a play corner. So, do children learn by playing? And if so, how can parents support this process?
Through play, children discover themselves and the world around them. There are many ways in which you can play with you child. Research suggests there are five common types of play: physical (running, jumping, kicking), play with objects (sand, playdough, blocks), symbolic (using objects to stand in for other objects, like speaking into a banana instead of a phone), pretend play (acting out imaginary situations), and games with rules (board games, “Simon says.”) Recognising these types of play can help you decide when to join in. You might even notice the distinct play areas in your child’s crèche or preschool. Early years teachers know lots about play, so don’t be afraid to ask them for tips!
Parents often wonder how they can participate in their children’s play. A young mother I recently met at an information event in the library asked me, “I know play is important, but how do I know if I’m doing it right?” My response: think about whether you and your child are enjoying it. Sometimes we forget why we play – to have fun!
Spending time playing with your child can build bonds. It shows the child that you are trying to know them as a person – that you value their interests, and are willing to be part of their world. Playing with your child, or simply watching them play, helps you to get to know your child better. The more you understand your child’s mood and behaviour, the easier it becomes to deal with the more challenging parenting tasks.
As work and the demands of daily life claim our free time, many parents feel they lose their ability to play. It might be helpful to think of playtime like being a passenger on a bus. You have decided to get on the bus, but until it’s time to get off, you are not in charge. You are responsible for taking your seat, interacting with other passengers, or just sitting quietly. In play, your child is the expert – the bus driver. You can just sit back and enjoy the journey!
Top Tips for starting to play with your child
If you find playing doesn’t come naturally for you, make an appointment: set a special time to play with your child for a few minutes after dinner.
Observe: see what your child can do – they may surprise you.
Be where your child is: wait at the edge of the play for the child’s cue to join in.
To get started, copy some of what the child is doing.
Don’t question your child – let them decide and take the lead.
Don’t give instructions. Remember, you are the play passenger – not the driver.
Don’t try to change the direction of the play (unless it’s getting rough or unsafe).
This article was contributed by Limerick Childcare Committee, a member of Parenting Limerick. Parenting Limerick is a network of parenting and family support organisations. Go to gov.ie/letsplayireland for more information on the government-led initiative aimed at promoting play for all children living in Ireland during the Covid-19 emergency.