Wednesday 20 August 2014

Free to play

I'm an only child and when I was younger, I spent a lot of time playing by myself. I'd read books. I'd build dens. I'd make time capsules. I even for,ed my own hedgehog club, complete with membership leaflet and card, which had just the one member - me.

Now before you start feeling sorry for me or start hearing a tiny violin playing off in the background somewhere, I didn't mind. If you're an only child yourself, you'll understand too. I knew no different. You can't really miss what you've never had.

Playing by myself helped me to become the person I am today. Of course, my parents didn't just leave me alone every day to fend for myself, but when I was young yet old enough to play without constant supervision, I relied on my imagination and explored the world around me. Namely, our garden and the surrounding woods, playing fields and canalside areas the school I lived next door had to offer.

Whilst I'm sure that Ethan won't me an only child like me, I don't think there is anything wrong with it and I can see from my own experiences that having my own time to discover and play is incredibly valuable.

This past week, another story telling parents what they should or shouldn't do came out in the press. In fairness, it was in response to a survey that had been released by MadeForMums and Fisher-Price about the pressures parents feel when it comes to playtime, but any 'expert' advice seems to be played out by the press as a stark warming rather than friendly advice.

Anyway, this time the news was telling is that if we want to boost our child's development, we may be stifling it if we rely on structured activities. I've always been keen to introduce some structure to our routine and will rotate toys so Ethan doesn't get too bored too quickly and I guess I've always had this idea in my mind when Ethan is a bit older, we will take part in structured activities during the day, from painting and role play to baking and playing games.

According to the survey, parents, like me, feel a pressure to play one-to-one with their children and to keep them constantly engaged through structured activities.

Sixty-three per cent thought one-to-one play would help their children develop new skills more quickly and 66 per cent worried they didn’t play with their offspring enough.

However, we needn't feel so much pressure, as playing alone is just as important. In fact, it can help our little ones to develop crucial skills linked to higher academic achievement and all-round well being. I would argue, personally, that for children with siblings, this individual free-play is even more important. 

Ethan regularly does his own thing, choosing what to play with and for how long. I know he's still quite young so that's probably the same for most children, but it's not something we will discourage. He's learning every minute and we don't want to restrict him in any way. He has an enviable inquisitiveness and is in awe of everything around him so we are quite happy to let him discover things for himself. We can see him working things out and learni what happens when he does something. We're always watching, don't get me wrong, but if he's trying to reach for something, as long as he's not going to really hurt himself, we let him figure out how to get it. Either outcome teaches him something and I believe that this kind of play helps him build confidence and his independence.

That said, he does love to play ball with us now, flinging or rolling a ball at us, or he likes to have us read books or join him on the floor with his toy animals. We will continue to play interactive games with him as well as encouring creative and sporty activities, plus free play when Ethan can choose what Ethan would like to do.

The expert, Dr David Whitebread, senior lecturer in psychology and education at Cambridge University, said that denying children time to explore alone could harm their development. 'The really big concern over the last decade is the relative loss of opportunities for children to engage in child-led play,’ he said. ‘Children’s lives are much more structured than they have ever been – and there is quite a lot of evidence to suggest this can be detrimental.  Parents can certainly be given guidelines about productive ways of playing with their children, but it’s important that play is not structured all the time.’

Becoming a parent is a non-stop minefield of information and you're always learning. Whenever 'official' advice such as this comes out, it can anger some parents and worry others. The truth is, much about being a mum or dad is common sense and you have to learn how to do things your way and in the way that best suits your child.

As long as they get to enjoy a range of different things as well as having some time to just let their imaginations take over, they'll get the best of both worlds.


  1. My boys have almost seven and a half years between them so they have the benefit of a sibling but both also spend a lot of time without a playmate. Even when they do spend time together it's not the same as siblings with a year or two between them.

    There's no right or wrong but the press do make an issue of these things!

  2. I leave Joshua to play on his own. He's only 15months but can quite happily pccupy himself which I think can only be a positive thing. I do spend time with him on the floor playing but I can leave him if I need to and he is just as happy. X


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