Toy story: The importance of play in your child’s life

Toy story: The importance of play in your child’s life

Play is fundamental to children’s whole development and parents need to be involved, writes Helen O’Callaghan.

WHAT if toys could come to life, with personalities and emotions just like ours? And what if maybe they do, whenever we’re not around? This was the premise of the Toy Story movies that have captivated audiences globally since the first one came out in the mid-‘90s.

Now, the release of Toy Story 4 on June 21 underlines again the key importance of play throughout childhood.

Children need to play for their cognitive, social and emotional development, says Karen O’Connor, coordinator and lecturer on the MA in play therapy at CIT. She points to the words of Garry Landreth, an international leader in child-centred play therapy: ‘play is the child’s language and the toys are their words’.

For children, play is a stage for real life, says O’Connor. “They practise what they see, imitating in a very safe way what they see adults doing, what’s done in society — the cultural ways. They need play to express their feelings in a safe way. They can do in fantasy what’s not allowed in reality.”

O’Connor gives the example of a child with strong feelings of jealousy towards a new sibling. “They might play ‘hurting’ and ‘binning’ the baby and it’s safe to do it. They’re only playing it out, so guilt is alleviated and there are no consequences. They get their tension out safely,” she says, adding that the parent would point out ‘we wouldn’t really do that in real life, but it’s okay to play it out’.

Play is fundamental to children’s whole development, says Dr Yvonne Quinn, senior clinical psychologist at the Treehouse Practice. And it’s important for fostering a positive parent/child relationship. “Parents who join their child in play have a unique opportunity to step into and experience the child in their world. So often, it’s the other way around — we’re asking children to adapt to our world.”

Clinical psychologist Dr Yvonne Quinn. Picture: Moya Nolan
Clinical psychologist Dr Yvonne Quinn. Picture: Moya Nolan

Parents are a baby’s best toy, says Play Therapy Ireland CEO Bernie Kelleher. “This happens through their interaction with the baby. Babies look to parents for all their needs — they seek out eye contact and their attention.”

This interaction, says Kelleher, is crucial for building attachment.

Children’s play goes through many stages — and how toys are played with changes accordingly.

Quinn points to some early stages:

  • Babies experience the world through their senses and motor movements.
  • Two-year-olds engage in parallel play, playing independently alongside another child. Their toys are very concrete representations of what they’re playing.
  • Pre-schoolers and junior infants play with other children. Socio-dramatic and role-play becomes important. They act out scenes — feeding/changing baby.
  • As children get older, play becomes more elaborate and abstract and toys can be symbolic representations — a car can stand in for a jeep. Cooperative play’s important with games like hide-and-seek.
  • Around age eight, rule-based games and complying with these rules become important, as does wish for competence in games.

As children’s play develops, their capacity to socialise does too, says Quinn. “Developing the skill of taking turns, of waiting, are fundamental to building relationships.”

O’Connor says older children use the word ‘pretend’ less when playing pretend games together. “There are huge negotiation skills and compromises involved. Communication becomes more implicit, more assumed — there’s shared pretending: ‘I’ll be the shopkeeper’ and it’s assumed you’ll be the customer. There’s a shared meaning and a reliance on the non-verbal.”

She sees Irish parents tending to stop children playing at around age 10. “In England, it’s very normal for them to be playing until they’re in secondary school.”

She urges parents to think about what their child is doing when they’re playing, and the child-toy connection. “As children get older, they project onto a toy what they need it to represent emotionally for them.”

And in pretend games, they learn empathy and understanding — playing the part of the baddie, why might the baddie have done what he did? While it was wrong, were there mitigating factors?

“It’d be amazing if parents could see the value of play. If they could see ‘my child is playing and developing in all these ways — that will help them be cleverer, be a better citizen and a nicer person’, they’d allow a child to take that one step forward and two steps back (into more ‘childish’ play for their age),” says O’Connor.

As children near end of primary school, she says, they may look older and be cognitively quite clever but it’s important to allow them be emotionally younger. Shared play with younger siblings/cousins can make this easier. 

“A 12-year-old might not want to be seen to be role-playing but they have an excuse if playing with younger children.”

Prioritising your child’s play means giving them space and time for free play. Working against this today, says Quinn, is the fact children tend to be over-scheduled and over-supervised. 

“And the play we facilitate tends to be very activity-focused,” she says, giving the example of birthday parties with laid-on activities. Providing children with time/space to give free rein to their imagination can be tricky today — but there’s a cost if we don’t do it. 

“It impacts on a child’s capacity to be independent and resourceful,” says Quinn.

O’Connor finds parents, through lack of confidence, sometimes shy away from playing with their child. Maybe they don’t themselves have many childhood memories of playing — they read books or were doing chores. The good news is: playing with your child is easy.

“Trust that your child knows how to play. Sit with them and let them take the lead,” recommends O’Connor, who urges parents to avoid directing the play or telling the child how to end it. 

Allow your child to be the expert in their own play — you don’t have to always know what it means. Be a witness, share their enjoyment, show interest — that way, you’re doing a lot.

Just as a toy can ignite a play idea, books and story-reading are great for stimulating imagination, says Kelleher.

“Reading at bedtime’s a good starting point. As children gets older, let them read to you, the parent. By stimulating imagination, a lot falls into place— they’ll be able to be creative.”

LEARNING ADVENTURE: Toy Story 4, which opens in cinemas on Friday, June 21, underlines the importance of play throughout childhood.
LEARNING ADVENTURE: Toy Story 4, which opens in cinemas on Friday, June 21, underlines the importance of play throughout childhood.

In this digital age, Kelleher wonders if children might be hard-pressed to pick out one stand-out favourite toy they absolutely adore – unlike Toy Story’s Andy, whose top toys were cowboy Woody and more cutting-edge Buzz Lightyear. But is there a place for integrating technology into play? What about playing games like Minecraft with school friends online?

“Digital play is very much here, but it’s important we limit it,” says Kelleher. “If a child’s keen on Minecraft, parents should educate themselves about it. And let their child explain it to them.”

The brain’s a social organ and needs human interaction to develop, whereas technology responds to the basic part of the brain, the reward centre, points out O’Connor. 

“The child’s brain needs interaction with adults and with other children. Yet parents use technology a lot to mind children, so the children are on their own.”

For her, technology’s analogous to sweets and chocolate – just as we take care not to let over-consumption of treats displace nutritious food in our children’s diets, we mustn’t let technology displace healthy play. 

“Chocolate isn’t bad, but too much is — and chocolate without your dinner is very bad. A bit of technology doesn’t hurt — but a child not going out to play or not playing with other children would worry me.”

With her children, Quinn has had to “shift her bias around what play looks like today”. She advocates joining children in this ‘new’ play. 

“Instead of passively giving them a screen, join the child, sit beside them, observe and comment as you would with a child doing (traditional) floor-play. Children want your attention and to feel they matter — you can do this too through technology.”

Quinn says games like Minecraft can be useful for shy children, who have social anxiety and feel overwhelmed in traditional social settings.

“Technology can offer a really nice way into that world in a way that doesn’t overwhelm. It can be an opportunity to relate and connect with peers.” But she warns that it needs to be done in a balanced way, with limits, and parents need to up-skill around internet safety.

As Toy Story 4 hits cinemas next weekend – almost 20 years since the first movie– we can surely expect it to speak once again to the vital importance of children’s play. And it may even have answers as to where the newer technologies fit into it all.

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