It’s easy to think of play as ‘frivolous’ or a treat that can be bestowed upon children if they behave, but research shows that ‘play’ is essential to every facet of a child’s development and unfortunately it’s under attack.
By the time a child is eight they will have spent a full year sitting in front of a screen, and a report from the Children’s Society shows that one in six children aged between 5 and16 are likely to be experiencing mental health problems, so now more than ever, it’s crucial that society create opportunities for children to play and connect.
Through play, children learn a multitude of skills including how to compromise, to regulate emotions, to develop an interest in the world around them, and to fine tune their motor skills.
In the Royal Parks we have been running a three-year play programme in The Regent’s Park and Greenwich Park, and in the wider community, to facilitate outdoor play and help children connect with one other. In these child- led sessions, play workers - with the help of a few props - help children to do what they do best, to play.
The play programme has been an integral part of the refurbishment of Gloucester Gate and Greenwich Playgrounds, all of which would not have been possible without a generous grant from the London Marathon Charitable Trust
We spoke to three individuals involved in the world of play to ask them: What’s the big deal about play?
Play is evolutionary, it’s key to our survival
It’s an inbuilt driver, the need to play, the desire to play, the joy of it. Nature made it fun for a reason. Nature wants us to play, it wants us to develop.
Children will always find a way to play if they can, even if the conditions are less than ideal. I was working in a school recently and the play area was so barren, there was nothing, and when the kids came out to play, they still found something fun to do. It’s like water in the midst of a leak, it will always find a way through, and play is the same. There are accounts of these children in refugee camps in Lebanon, where everyone was living on top of each other and it was unbearably cramped, but the children still managed to find this little corridor and make it their little play area.
Play is a responsible for many inventions
Play has many well-known physical, mental, and social benefits but I really love the creative side of it. Children start playing from the start. Play is the first creative act that children do, whether it’s creating an imaginary world, or putting something on paper or lining cars up. It’s like a flame that needs to be looked after through life. There’s a whole story about how a German toy in the 1600s is responsible for the modern laptop we see today. Any evolutionary step forward - the fire, the wheel, you can guarantee that play was behind it.
Play facilitates human connection, and that makes us happy
Do you ever see a kid, say to another kid: “Do you want to play?” and the other kid will say: “Go on then.” They haven’t got a plan, there is no context, no theme. That is total connection, and it’s a beautiful thing when it happens. And if a child is playing with another child, then that might result in the caregivers talking and connecting too.
Children have suffered during the lockdown, especially teenagers
Children need space and time to play. When a child loses its ability to play, to socialise, they suffer, and that’s what has happened to kids during lockdown, particularly the young teenagers. I know a few people whose older kids are having some sort of mental health crisis.
Despite this, the bounce back from many children this summer has been incredible
London Play has been building go-karts all across London, and the kids come ready to go, and even though they have had over a year of being locked away, they come back to life.
We must prioritise play to raise healthy, well-adjusted children
We need to ensure that play is embedded into our society. In my opinion, we need to make the curriculum more child centred rather than curriculum centred. I’m a big fan of the Finnish education system which is very much play based and although it’s only a small country, it’s performing exceptionally well on international school league tables.
I’d also like to see the position of a play worker elevated to that of a teacher, as it is in Scandinavian countries, and finally I’d like to see opportunities for play incorporated in whatever we build, whether that’s shopping centres or new flats.
Panda is a Play Co-ordinator for The Royal Parks, Panda organises and delivers the play sessions along with London Play in The Regent’s Park, Greenwich Park and the wider community
Child-led play is natural, fun and self-motivated
A lot of parents who have attended our free play sessions say there are not enough organisations facilitating these type of events. I don’t just mean ‘free’ in the sense of ‘free to access,’ but ‘free play’ as in child led. It’s so important for play to be self-led and intrinsically motivated because when a lot of us were young, we could play outside and do what we wanted, and free play helped fulfil our developmental needs.
It is challenging to create a space in which children can play freely, but it’s so important. The ideal scenario is that play work would be redundant, and we would live in a society where children were playing freely. That’s the goal but it’s a tough challenge – there are so many barriers to children having time and space to freely play freely– whether that’s scheduled activities, electronics, or just how busy everyone’s lives are.
As a society we don’t value play enough
I believe that as a society we don’t value children’s play or freedom, and freedom of expression, and as a result, children can be stunted in their development. It depends on what we value in society. If we value production, play won’t be a necessity. As a society we need to ask the question are we solely rearing children to be productive?
However, post lockdowns – the penny has started to drop on how necessary play is, partly because it’s an essential part of socialisation. If you don’t have play, you won’t be socialised. Also, in play you learn risk, depth perception as well as motor skills. These skills are essential to survival.
Our outreach sessions in the community have gone down brilliantly
We have been doing sessions in the local community, and the feedback has been exceptional. Local to The Regent’s Park, we have been doing sessions in Somers Town, and in collaboration with the Regent’s Time Bank, we have been delivering free play sessions in The Regent’s Park Estate. The children have had so much fun exploring their space in a way they haven’t before, and this has made the estate feel more theirs.
Being outside and being with friends is what children really missed during the lockdown
Playing outside provides many benefits, including Vitamin D exposure and an appreciation of nature. It encourages active play which is so important for children’s motor skills, their health, and as a way to release endorphins. We hope that lots of children will make use of our two newly refurbished playgrounds – and will attend some of our play programme sessions. Find out more about the programme via www.royalparks.org.uk/play or follow us on Instagram via @playin.thepark
Kalisha is a resident of the Regent’s Park Estate and is an Outreach and Support Worker for the Regent’s Time Bank. The time bank works with approximately120 families on The Regent’s Park Estate. Recently, Kalisha has worked with Panda from The Royal Parks to deliver free play sessions on the estate.
Lockdown really affected children, including my own
I have two children, a 7-year-old and a 3-year-old. For the youngest, lockdown was almost second nature, which is really sad in itself, but my eldest had a really rough time. She didn’t understand why she couldn’t go out and play with her friends. She needed the social contact. It wasn’t necessarily going outside because we did things like that, it was the social contact and stimulation with her friends. A lot of parents said their children just struggled really. There is a French phrase ‘Joie de vivre’ and it means ‘joy of living’ – and children just struggled to maintain that, and it’s just something that children normally would naturally have.
It was especially tough on children in estates like these, where lots of families are not financially well off and some are living in very cramped conditions. We’ve got one family where there is seven people living in one bedroomed flat and they had to spend lockdown there. You can’t even fathom what that family went through. That’s the same case for a lot of these families on The Regent’s Park Estate.
I was inspired by free play when I went to a session with my two children
As part of my job, I organise free events to being the local community together and develop a free summer holiday program for local children. I wanted to include play sessions in the summer program after attending a session in Kings Cross called PlayKX (you can now find them on Instagram via @assembleplay). I met Penny, the founder, and I found it really interesting the things she would say to me as a parent. She would just say just stand back, leave them alone, just let them play. And I was like woah, as my maternal reaction was, I just wanted to help. But I see now I was stifling the process.
So, when I was curating the program I remembered the play sessions, and I knew I definitely want to include something like that. Because I liked the fact that it wasn’t educational led, it wasn’t outcome led, it was just allowing children to use their imaginations. Children don’t often get the opportunity to become fully engrossed in their imaginations as much, because nearly everything is outcome led. We give them a piece of paper and say colour this in to look beautiful, we give them a toy and say this is the correct way to use it. That type of play, is not child led, its adult led. So, I contacted Penny and she put me in contact with Panda from The Royal Parks and we collaborated on free play sessions, and they were brilliant.
I don’t think people understand play
I don’t think people understand play, which is interesting because we have all played, but we don’t look at play from a child’s perspective. In my mind, play is the facilitation of an environment to play, but you don’t create the play outcome. You can give them tools, that they may use to play but that’s it.
I’d like to see free play more accessible, more understood
When I first raised that I wanted to do these play sessions, some people thought it was quite a middle-class type of thing, quite an abstract thing, but it’s not at all. It’s just allowing children to use their imagination. It’s genius actually. I’d like people to understand that free play is not a far-fetched idea, to understand the benefits it has for children, and for their mental health and development.
I’d also like to see more play worker appreciation in our society. It’s a very skilled job. The way Panda works is so effortless, and she’s doing so much in these play sessions, but making it look like she’s doing nothing at all. I’ve never seen anything like it.