Making time to play with your kids in a time-poor world

Determined to make time to play with her son, time-poor Andrea Mara enlists the help of experts.

“MUM, will you play with me?” It’s a question that comes regularly from my five-year-old son, and one that brings out conflicting emotions: I love that he still wants to play with me, and I hate that I don’t always have time.

I promise myself I’ll make more of an effort, but then the stuff of everyday life come along again — homework, work, dinners — and another day passes without any play.

With Christmas approaching, I’m determined to make time for him (and for whatever Santa brings) and who better to advise on this than someone who studies play for a living.

Irish woman Ciara Laverty is a research assistant in Cambridge University’s Centre for Research on Play in Education, Development and Learning (PEDAL) and she has some practical recommendations for parents at this time of year.

“Christmas is a great opportunity for playing; festive songs and nursery rhymes can be thought of as ‘symbolic play’, and can help young children to master spoken language,” she says. She is keen to point out that this doesn’t have to mean lots of new toys.

“Anyone who has watched an infant exploring wrapping paper or an empty cardboard box will know well the fascination that ensues. Christmas is often the time when families play games together, and very simple board games or card games can introduce the idea of rules, which encompass things like sharing, turn-taking and considering another person’s perspective.” What kind of toys should Santa consider for toddlers and small children?

“Toddlers love exploring the properties of new objects, so toys that involve sorting and nesting are a good bet. They’re also beginning to understand the notion of cause-and-effect, so pop up toys similar to ‘jack-in-the-box’ will also provide plenty of entertainment,” she says.

And of course books are always a good bet at any stage.

“The range and quality of books for children is impressive. Sensory books that encourage scratching, rubbing, or smelling can be really engaging for young children.” What about kids who want tablets from Santa?

Professor David Whitebread, acting director of PEDAL, says that while there has been a considerable amount of research on the effects of digital play on young children’s development, the results have been inconclusive.

“There is no evidence that playing a game — for example a maths game involving counting — on a tablet, is any more beneficial than playing it with physical materials.” He says it’s important that play on tablets should be a predominantly social rather than solitary activity.

“The concern is that if a tablet is used as a way of keeping young children occupied, this may reduce the time they are spending in other play activities which are important for their development — physical play, outdoor play, pretence, and all kinds of play with objects.” He does, however, mention one type of electronic play that has value.

“Any game that provides children with opportunities to be creative or to be in the role of ‘author’ or inventor or builder; for example art packages, adventure games, Sims, Minecraft.” Putting devices aside, what kind of play is most beneficial for small kids?

“Physical play of all sorts — often referred to as ‘rough and tumble’,” says Professor Whitebread.

“Anything that makes the child laugh and engages them. All of this is very important to build the child’s sense of secure attachment, to feel really loved, and to give them confidence in their own place in the world. Absolutely vital.” 

Laverty expands on why play is so important for development: “Developmental psychology tells us that ‘joint attention’ between caregiver and child can enhance children’s language development and school readiness abilities, including their ability to concentrate and persevere.” 

She explains that an episode of joint attention is when an adult and child are sharing any kind of experience. 

“It could be looking at a book together, building, making something — cooking or making a jigsaw, playing a game, or reminiscing together about a shared experience.

The crucial element within such episodes is that the discussion should be led by the child and the adult should ‘follow’ the child’s interest.

One of the challenges we observe with parents is knowing whether it’s the frequency of play or the quality of play that matters more; it’s probably important for parents to read their child’s cues and be flexible in terms of their approach to playfulness.” 

Most of us know that play is vital, yet it can be difficult to find the time, especially if both parents are working.

Laverty says parents shouldn’t feel under pressure to carve out time to dedicate to play.

“One of the great things about play is that it can happen spontaneously, and doing everyday activities such as feeding and changing in a playful way is a good way of adding playfulness to the limited time that working parents have with their children.”

Future scope

FUN TIMES: Allegra McDonald, from Raheny, Co Dublin, at the launch of the Ikea Let’s Play for Change campaign. Picture: MacInnes Photography

PLAY is constantly changing — how will it evolve in the future?

Through their research — The Play Report 2017 — Ikea have come up with a number of play trends:

Return to retro: As technology continues to advance at a rapid pace, people will continue to rebel by turning to and celebrating nostalgic games from their childhood.

Blurring boundaries: As life becomes faster, play will begin to creep into all aspects of people’s lives.

Multi-sensory: Where people embrace the new playful dimensions that technology enables, play will become even more immersive.

Digital connections: Technology is opening up a new world of distant connections.

Playful chores: People are noticing an increasing number of products and services that are designed to translate traditional chores into moments of play.

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