You may have noticed a really big difference between children and grown-ups. No I’m not talking about the physical size difference, or the more obvious maturity that most adults have compared to their kids. I’m talking about our approach to life.
Have you noticed that once we’re parents, most of us want life to be civilised, tidy, quiet, and relaxed.
And the kids? They want wild. They want action. They want exploration and adventure. While we want to sleep, they want one thing over and over again. Play!
And they want it as much as possible. All the time.
There’s a very important reason play matters so much to our young children. Research shows that they need it to thrive (as do we). In fact, play may be one of the most essential experiences our children can be immersed in to equip them for later life. The more they can do it, the better off they may be.
There’s just one problem. Play is evolving. In many cases it no longer looks like it once did, and that may not be a good thing. The Australian Child Health Poll recently investigated digital media use for children. Our infants and toddlers are engaging with screens of one kind or another around 12-14 hours per week. To put that into perspective, experts argue that this figure should be as close to zero as possible. And 2-6 year-old children are on screens around 26 hours per week. That’s over 3 hours per day! (Our teens hit a whopping 43 hours per week, or just over 6 hours per day.)
That means our little ones are missing out on up to 26 hours per week of genuine, creative playtime; the kind of play where they connect with others, use their imagination – and their hands – and the kind of play that leads to great outcomes.
If we want our children to thrive and flourish, they need to play. When it’s done right (and screens are kept to a minimum), real play stimulates growth and learning for children that they simply can’t get in other, more ‘modern’ ways.
Play creates space for three vital needs to be met in our children’s lives: relatedness, competence, and autonomy.
First, and most important of all, play can create the chance for connection. Our children learn how to communicate, manage conflict, collaborate, and bond with us, their siblings, and their friends when they play. They use their imaginations to create situations where they can explore and play with roles (like doctors and nurses or mums and dads), pretend emotions, and unexpected social situations.
These relational skills may be the most important things that our children can learn so that they can navigate life successfully – and they learn them best through play.
Second, the best kinds of play are not about consumption, but creation. Think of classic playtime with LEGO (or DUPLO for younger kids), or even time in a sandpit or cushion-and-blanket cubby house. When our children play open-ended games they can use their imagination and creativity to build things, explore the limits of their physical surroundings, and experience a sense of competence when they succeed. When they feel competent, they feel motivated and happy – and they keep trying new things.
Third, children develop a sense that they’re in control when they play. It makes them confident, resourceful, and resilient. They do what feels intrinsically motivating. The best learning happens when our kids play creatively in ways that they choose.
Learning and playing do not need to be considered opposites. The more that they are intertwined, the better the outcomes.
I don’t know about you, but when it comes to my kids I want them to have the kinds of play opportunities that rely on imagination and creativity, that involve tactile experiences, and that build relationships. I’m talking about the kind of play that connects and creates. It’s the kind of play where kids call out, “Mum, come and see what I made”, or “Dad, can you do this with me?” It might be a sandcastle or a cubby house on a sunny day, or a LEGO or DUPLO tower on a rainy day.
But when play looks like this, play is magical – and so is childhood.
*Dr Justin Coulson is currently an ambassador for LEGO DUPLO