Our guest today is Jacqui Couper – an occupational therapist, wife and mother. This post first appeared here, and we are so grateful that Jacqui was happy for us to share it.
Have you ever felt that awkwardness of saying something to a group of people and the response is complete silence? Not a word, not a smile, only quiet. Even though the silence may not be long, the waiting for any response drags giving you time to think again about what you have just said.
This happened to me after giving a short talk about ‘The Power of Play’ for the Western Cape Department of Health First Thousands Days network meeting. I waited in the silence wondering what I had said that caused such a still response. Could it have been that I ended my talk with the words?“If relationships matter, play is the medium”
The First Thousand Days programme is a national initiative promoting the well-being of infants from conception to two years. The three pillars of the programme are Grow, Love and Play. As with so many programmes, the focus is on nutrition and survival as first priorities. Attachment and bonding have been added as part of love. Play sits poorly defined in a space that is not clear, as it is not seen as an equal priority to other more complex and demanding needs. Play is seen to be so simple that everyone must obviously know about it and thus it is not given the attention it deserves.
The theme that “Relationships matter” has become key in the First thousand Days campaign and also the recently launched WHO Nurturing Care Framework. My reason for making the simple and yet strong statement “If relationships matter, play is the medium” is that play connects humans. When the group members at the First Thousand Days meeting emerged out of their silence, their first response was, ‘yes!’ Play connects even strangers and diverse people together in a fun and equal way. A story was told about a new group of mothers from different backgrounds who were meeting for the first time. They were standing around uncomfortably looking at each other – until they played a simple game, which was ‘Stand up if your baby has messed all over you’, and ‘Hands up if you are tired from sleep deprivation’ etc. Standing, putting hands up, laughing and recognizing that each had a similar experience immediately connected the group.
Then, after my presentation, stories about play and memories of positive play experiences flowed out of the silence, such as cooking with grandmother, playing with sand, clay and water and making things out of scrap. Play forms our experiences and relationships with each other. This forms us into the people we become and the memories that we treasure.
Play is the link between the other two themes in the First thousand Days programme, which is Grow and Love. Family meal times can be an important time when stories are shared, jokes are told, tears are shed, and food is enjoyed (if there is food available for which we must always be thankful). We can no longer afford to encourage adequate nutrition or the survival of young children without also promoting development and play. Surviving and thriving in childhood go hand in hand together.
Play is not only for children. We all need to play. Play is good for everyone. Adults who are involved in play, such as sport, creative arts, music, and dance, are more likely to be better connected to other people and have a more positive outlook on life. Team building exercises are mostly playful and bring relationships together.
There is much to be said about playing with children because of the joy that playfulness gives to adults. Inter-generational play is special. It has contributed towards better and positive aging and well-being in elderly people. Many studies have been done of preschool children playing with the elderly in old age homes with positive results. Play connects adults and children across generations.
Play is the starting point of creating an imagination for acting out what children see but also what they cannot see or ‘thinking out of the box’, without fear of making mistakes. This is play. I have a feeling that adults who can imagine and think differently are those who are pushing boundaries and changing society. Think of the Wright brothers for their play that developed over time into aeroplanes. We learn through play. Play is so often underestimated for its role in learning, that we limit play to focus on reaching learning goals.
Let us be open to the simplicity of play that helps us to find ourselves and each other, no matter our age and ability.
It was without any planning that our most recent trip to the library resulted in reading bedtime stories that assume the wonderful imaginations of our children are based more in reality that those of their parents. My eldest is definitely at the age where he is constantly at war within himself, trying to figure out what is real, what is play-play and what is in his best interests to believe in (i.e. Father Christmas and the Tooth Mouse).
We came home with two wonderful books:
- “I want my light on!” by Tony Ross
- “There’s no such thing as a dragon” by Jack Kent
I want my light on! is the story of a little princess who doesn’t want to go to bed, because she believes there are ghosts in her room, despite all the palace staff trying to convince her otherwise. In a lovely twist, the book ends with the little ghost convincing his mom that little girls are real.
There’s no such thing as a dragon is of a similar theme, although perhaps with a slightly more poignant theme for us to take note of. The little boy’s dragon grows bigger and bigger, eventually carrying the family’s house away on his back, just so that he will get noticed, taken seriously, and that the parents will believe he is real.
These books highlight the role of imagination in early development, specifically in toddlers and preschool children. Reading plays a vital role in the development of imaginative narrative, that the children then play out in their play routines. While dragons, fairies, ghosts and the like show evidence of the child’s community’s beliefs, they also play a significant part in shaping the child’s world view.
What should imaginative play look like?
Between 18 and 24 months toddlers will start to play their first pretend games, acting out things that they see the adults in their lives do. This may include talking on the phone, cooking, driving a car.
By two years, they understand that an object could stand for something else e.g. this spoon could be my “phone”. They also like to pretend e.g. that they’re eating. I couldn’t believe it when my husband taught my toddler to fake sleep, eyes closed and snoring and all! It was definitely his first demonstration of understanding “play-play”.
As the child nears their third birthday they will really enter the world of imaginary play. You can look forward to more complicated scenes: boats and railways, tea parties, fight scenes and careers start to emerge. By age four they’ve moved from action and sound effects to complicated story lines and character traits.
So how can you as a parent foster this vital form of play in your child?
- Read read read! Books are a wonderful way to develop imaginative skills, abstract thinking and an understanding of story lines.
- Provide your child with props for their play time. These need not resemble anything in particular. Old curtain rings, wooden blocks and pieces of material can be used to create all sorts of scenes.
- Keep some old clothes for dress up and role play. These could be specific outfits from a school dress up day such as a doctor or princess, or a collection of hats, jewellery and shoes that they can use as their hearts desire.
- Get on the floor and play! There’s a fine line between teaching your children to play on their own, and promoting their play by acting as their play partner. If your child invites you into their story, by all means play along. Ask questions: What happened next? Who is this? Who am I?
Imaginative play is such a wonderful phase of development. Your child will develop their cognitive and social skills, as well as test out their own theories of how the world works. It is their safe space to explore interactions, sequences and consequences.
The information provided in this article is intended to foster a playful spirit in homes and to provide parents with ideas. This blog cannot replace a consultation with a health professional. If you have any concerns about your child’s development please seek individualized advice.