CHILD’S play is serious business for Paul Ramchandani. The first LEGO professor of play in education, development and learning at the University of Cambridge, he says that play is one of the most important ways in which children develop.
“It’s how children explore the world. It’s how they understand the world. It’s a fundamental part of how children develop,” he says.
Ramchandani leads a research team investigating the role of play in children’s early development and has just completed a review of the available research on father-and-child play. It suggests that children who play more with their fathers tend to do better later in life in terms of their emotional, social and cognitive development.
“In the first few years of life, children are developing strength and coordination and learning a lot about the boundaries of what’s allowed and what isn’t allowed,” says Ramchandani. “Rough-and-tumble play is one of the places where they can test out and learn about those boundaries.”
Although dads do all sorts of play with their children, it tends to include a lot of physical play, such as tickling, rolling around and chasing games. This boisterous, noisy play may seem chaotic and even dangerous but it can have the opposite effect on youngsters.
It doesn’t make children more aggressive, says Ramchandani, who is the father of two grown-up children. “If done well, it can actually help them learn the boundaries and exert their strength and manage their emotions in a controlled way.
You learn about what’s an appropriate aggressive response and what’s too much and what’s too little, but you learn about that hopefully in a safe environment with your parent.
Ramchandani, a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist, says the study found that dad and child play was linked to positive outcomes for children. He and his team reviewed data from 78 studies to understand more about how fathers play with their children from birth to three years old.
While a lot of the work that he does is funded by the LEGO Foundation, the charitable arm of the toy production company, his research is independent.
When talking about rough-and-tumble play, he doesn’t mean being overly aggressive with your child or hurting them. He is referring to the type of physical activity that tests boundaries. It can help children to manage their aggression and learn about managing those kinds of interactions.
“It gives them a safe place to try these things out,” he says. “They will make mistakes but if they do that in the context of playing with their mum or their dad, they can learn from it, they can get feedback from their parent and they might be able to do it a bit differently the next time, and certainly over time learn about the limits.”
The results of the study showed that there is “this increase in the amount of time and the number of times dads play with their children as they get older and that might be because dads feel more able to engage with their children as they get older”.
Rough-and-tumble play is not confined to dads, although on average fathers tend to do more of it. And Ramchandani points out that physical play is just one type. “All of the other kinds of play have different potential benefits. It’s about giving children different experiences and a range of experiences.”
He thinks that this is extremely important. Some types of play should be exciting, some should be calm, some should exercise their brains, some should exercise the rest of their bodies.
“There isn’t any one kind of play that is a panacea and there isn’t one interaction that’s uniquely the thing that children need. They need a range of play experiences. Children enjoy different things at different times of development.”
Ramchandani says right from the very earliest interactions with their parents, which may be just peek-a-boo games or non-verbal backwards and forwards, children are learning about what’s fun and how people react.
There may be a tendency to stereotype fathers, but Ramchandani believes that “it’s a trap to think that dads should do only certain things and mums should do only certain things.”
Although there are some differences, the overlap between what mums do with their children and what dads do is huge. “So it’s not necessarily that fathers as a group can uniquely do one thing, and have one unique contribution, or that mums have one unique contribution.
One dad is very different from another dad and one mother is very different from another mum.
What he would recommend for all parents is that they take the time to slow down and follow their child’s lead, doing what interests the youngster, rather than following their own pre-conceived notions of what constitutes play.
This might involve playing games that “you’re not really interested in, but it’s really important that your child has you engaged with them at their pace at least some of the time”.
Bringing up children is hard work, you’re trying to do multiple things at once, and Ramchandani says that one of the things it can be easy to miss some of your child’s communication, particularly from very young children.
It takes time to get on the same wavelength as your child, he says, and you can’t do that all the time but he says that this type of responsive parenting can help their learning as well as their social and emotional development.
Ramchandani also recommends trying a range of things with your child.
“It’s really important for children to try a range of things, and for parents that means not what they would normally do. Most of us have favourite games and favourite toys that we’re really comfortable with but trying other things is really important.
“The most important is having fun, so doing things that both you and your child enjoy.”