Is The Importance Of Play A Challenge For Parents?
"Play is the highest form of research."
This quote is most often attributed to Albert Einstein and although he may not have actually said it, one can't deny the truth of the statement itself. Play is how children learn about their world, it is how they interpret what they see around them and how they make new discoveries. They develop vital skills through play like learning how to socialise and become independent beings. Play is a huge part of childhood and its importance cannot be overstated.
However, when you are an anxious new parent play takes on a whole new meaning. Am I playing enough with my child? Does she have the right toys for her stage of development? Is she bored, over-stimulated…will I ever manage to get this right? It can be very over-whelming. In March 2004 Ireland became one of the first countries to introduce a National Play Policy emphasising play as the single most important teaching tool in early childhood.
But, as parents, are we putting ourselves under an unnecessary amount of pressure to ensure we are meeting our child's daily play requirements? Jean Piaget, a clinical psychologist well known for his work on early childhood development, stated that "children require long, uninterrupted periods of play and exploration." The key word here I feel is uninterrupted yet I find myself so often interrupting.
I feel if I simply sit back and allow my daughter the space to play that I am somehow being a 'bad' mom. Where does this notion come from? My professional background is in early childhood education and so I spent years learning about how important it is for small children to play.
Though I did gain some valuable insight into being a parent, I think it also contributed a lot to the anxiety I feel about making sure my daughter has meaningful play experiences. I have to do sensory play, imaginative play, gross motor skill play... on and on until I drive both myself and my daughter quite mad. What does she most like doing? Driving her toy cars around her toy mat and making cups of tea for her teddies.
Some days I find myself dragging my daughter out to various activities only to find she would much rather stay home with her own toys. But that's not a 'worthwhile' activity, so I find myself worrying. However, who am I to say what she finds 'worthwhile' or what she is actually learning when she engages in this type of play? My meddling could be doing more harm than good.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions and it seems so too is the road to motherhood. I don't know when to stop and when to intervene. My insistence on meaningful play can, however, leave both of us stressed and upset. I certainly don't remember my own mom killing herself to keep me amused all day long.
She had three children, a job and a rake of household chores to finish. I do remember sitting playing with my toys while she took five minutes for herself to read a book. Yet I never allow myself the same opportunity or indeed allow my daughter to learn the joys of playing by herself. I am too busy planning her next activity.
Solo play, it's official title, is a really valuable way of learning about the world, but I realised recently that my daughter doesn't really know how to play by herself if I am in the room. If I am in the kitchen doing the washing-up, then she will quite happily potter about playing with her toys. But the moment she sees me it stops.
I don't think this is healthy for either of us. Some level of parent-led play is brilliant (and indeed necessary) but I do believe I over-parent in this regard. It struck me that parents today are constantly bombarded with so much advice we don't know what is right and what is wrong. Conflicting opinions can leave you feeling muddled, confused and downright exhausted as you struggle to nurture your child's development. Sometimes I wonder whether things have gone too far; do we know too much now?
We are nearly afraid to do anything in case we 'damage' our children's fragile selves. Play used to be just something children did as natural as breathing but now it is PLAY in capital letters, something that needs to be helping social skills or cognitive skills or fine motor skills. But the thing is all types of play (and especially child-led play) contribute to learning and children learn best (like all of us) when they are really enjoying an activity.
I think once I can really get my head around this perhaps I will allow myself to relax and my daughter the space to just play.