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National PlayDay 2021

Parent Child Play

In support of PlayDay, we are pleased to share some top tips from our members about how parents and carers can play with younger children and join the conversation about the importance of play.

PlayDay takes place on the first Wednesday in August and is coordinated by Play England, Play Wales, Play Scotland and Play Board Northern Ireland.

The organisers explainThe 2021 theme, Summer of Play, recognises the challenges children and young people have faced over the past year and the need to enjoy time for play with their friends, having fun. Families and carers are being encouraged to celebrate children’s right to play in their local communities.’

Given that many babies, children and young people have experienced an incredibly difficult and disruptive 16 months, in which the usual opportunities for play have not been readily available, it’s important to find opportunities to help children play. Felicity Tyson, Child Psychotherapist who works in a Specialist Neurodevelopmental Service explains – ‘the pandemic and lockdown have been particularly tough on families with children and families with learning difficulties and disabilities. They have been cut off physically from the very lifelines and hubs of support that schools, community services and activities provide.’ 

ACP Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist Ben Yeo, who works for PAIRS (Parent and Infant Relationship Service) in Lambeth, explains why play matters:

As a child psychotherapist, why does play matter?

Play is fun and at the same time a seriously important part of young children’s emotional development. Whether it’s role-play, playing with toys, or a baby’s earliest interactions with their caregiver, play helps children explore their emotions and make sense of the world.

As child psychotherapists our role, with the help of parents and other practitioners, can be to help distressed children recover their capacity to play, or indeed learn to play for the first time. Distress, trauma and adverse childhood experiences can inhibit a child’s ability to play.

In Parent-infant and Child Psychotherapy we can nurture playful interactions between babies, young children and their caregivers from the very beginning.

How does play help children?

Ben explains that whilst the physical and social benefits of play are well documented, ‘the link between play and children’s mental health is less recognised. In clinical work and in everyday life, I see children grappling with their feelings about past and present events through play.

A simple ‘peek-a-boo’ game can help babies explore feelings around separation and reunion. Young children running around being superheroes can help them express feelings of vulnerability and potency. Last week I saw a seven old pretending to be a Tyrannosaurus Rex angrily fighting off the originally named ‘Germosauras’… an example of the power of imaginary play to help children make sense of the pandemic.’

Claire Hopkins, Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist adds:

‘For many children when their expressions are directed into play or art, the outcome feels safer as it is often symbolically represented. Also, mess making and experiential sensory creativity also allow for an opportunity to let go, relax and feel free of expectations, which children don’t always have lots of opportunities to do.’ The summer holidays, which are generally a time in which children are freer from the expectations of the school curriculum, can be a good time to engage in sensory/messy play.

How do you use play in your work?

Ben explains; - ‘Whether I am in a clinic, children’s centre, home visit or more recently online, I have simple toys at hand to facilitate play and I try to be in a playful state of mind. During the pandemic I have had to find new ways to engage children through play. Sitting on the floor with a box of toys can be helpful in engaging young children in a video call. Playing the computer game ‘Minecraft’ has engaged older children in a playful and creative online space.

Helping children play takes careful thought and attention from adults. It can be helpful to notice things (sometimes spoken aloud, sometimes just observed) about a young child’s play. Naming what is happening can help children to feel heard and understood.  I try not to lead the play or interrupt the flow of a child’s play by imposing my own meaning, but this is easier said than done.'

What sort of play do you think is most helpful?

Ben suggests that; ‘All types of play can be helpful, but child-led play in the presence of a thoughtful and noticing adult is the best way to help children to express themselves. Letting the child take the lead can be challenging for parents and practitioners alike. As adults we can feel inhibited about play for reasons often linked to our own childhood experiences. 

Play involves children taking important emotional risks as they grapple with challenging feelings. Play can be fun and at the same time an important opportunity to explore feelings of sadness, fear and exclusion. It is fascinating to notice the spectrum of emotions on a child’s concentrated face as they are playing. ‘It is important to remember that play is imaginary and children might do things in play that they don’t do in real life, which is why it is important, but it can also feel a little uncomfortable or worrying to watch at times. However, this is often a child processing or trying to make sense of experiences, and so it is important to allow this exploration, as long as no one is getting hurt.

How can parents encourage children to play? 

Ben’s top five tips are:

  • Set aside protected time and space each day which includes turning off the television and not checking your phone.
  • Be observant and try to follow your child’s lead.  
  • Be attentive and notice things about your child’s play (spoken aloud or to yourself).
  • Be prepared to be excluded from a game, this might be the whole point of the game.
  • Some days are easier than others, but if you persistently struggle to play with your child consider speaking to a professional such as your Health Visitor.

Claire Hopkins adds:

  • Allow your child to take the lead in play and creative expression and try to avoid telling them if they are doing it right or wrong. For example, it’s an important developmental step for children to use toys or objects symbolically to represent other things e.g. a wooden block to represent a person. Try not to correct them, telling them ‘no, it’s a wooden block for making towers with’, or ‘no, policemen don’t drive trucks’. Simply encourage them with something like ‘you are being very creative!’ or try and go along with the roles they are giving out. 
  • Echoing children’s play or their comments can help them to feel you are really there in the moment with them e.g. if the child is playfully scolding the dog toy for running out of the doll’s house you can gently say ‘goodness doggy has been really naughty today!’   
  • Some children want parents / carers to get really involved in their play whilst others prefer to do it alone. For those children who prefer to play out their own stories please don’t think this means they do not want you there – children gain so much by simply being gently watched and held in mind.