Frustrated At The Mess? Why You Should Re-Think Playtime Mess…

Frustrated At The Mess? Why You Should Re-Think Playtime Mess…

James, aged four, came in to ask for his basket of ‘play’ sheets and a bucket of pegs. He was making a cubby by pegging old sheets to the low branches on the tree outside. The neighbourhood children were helping.

Yesterday, the tree was a pirate ship, complete with sails made from the sheets, pegged to higher branches and billowing in the wind as the children rode the high seas upon their ‘deck’ where the branches forked outwards on the tree trunk.

While their creativity and imagination may seem amazing, James and his friends are just doing what comes naturally to small children when they are allowed to play.

If you think play is simply ‘having fun’ or you are bothered by the mess and would prefer your child to be doing something more ‘educational’, perhaps you need to reconsider. According to Dr Kathleen Alfano, psychologist and director of the Fisher Price Research Department in the United States, ‘play develops important social skills and playful children are more likely to be effective learners.’ Dr Alfano says, “Through play, children learn to get along with others, solve problems and handle stressful situations. Play helps develop perceptual motor skills, strength, balance and coordination. It also encourages creativity, which improves emotional intelligence.”

Emotional intelligence, or EQ, has become somewhat of a buzzword in corporate circles where it is a highly valued quality. The basic attributes of emotional intelligence are: awareness of one’s feelings and the ability to control them; emotional resilience and ability to perform consistently; motivation and the drive to achieve results; sensitivity to other’s needs and the ability to change and influence others; decisiveness; integrity and conscientiousness.

Kathleen Alfano says, “Some people who score well in IQ tests are not doing well in life. Some of it may be attributed to low emotional intelligence and creativity. These people don’t know how to handle things when they are not going their way and what it all comes down to is early experiences – and play.”

Your Role

Dr Alfano recommends providing opportunities and encouraging role play by taking children on field trips and reading stories about different people. She advises that language develops through play and this will help with reading. Ruth Wittig, principal of Ghilgai, a Melbourne based Steiner School cautions against the overuse of sophisticated ‘finished’ toys. She says, “Give simple, basic elements for play and you will see the child play imaginatively. He will be creative and develop initiative, courage and confidence: children’s confidence is expressed within play when they act as masters of the situation.”

There are few limits for children’s play apart from safety and age-appropriateness, but according to Dr Alfano we should avoid limiting opportunities by imposing value judgements on where the play is leading. She says, "As carers, it is our role to observe and extend, but there should be no pre-conditions such as which are girls’ toys and which are boys’ toys.

What about violent toys?

On the old perennial that bothers so many parents – violent toys – the research is reassuring: Dr Alfano says, “Research shows that the toy is neutral; it’s what a child takes to play that matters, so it’s important that parents understand what trauma the child is exposed to. If a child is trying to work through something traumatic while playing, it should be talked about.”

It is important that children should not be allowed to act violently towards another person. However aggressive play does have some positive elements, according to Jeffrey Goldstein, Professor of Media and Communication at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands. Professor Goldstein says, “Aggressive play requires co-operation and helps a child learn limits and self-control. There is a clear distinction between aggressive play and aggressive behaviour and children instinctively know the difference.”

Aggressive play also allows children to release their boundless energy. This applies especially to boys who need to find positive ways to use it up in non-destructive ways. Professor Goldstein says, “I would be concerned about aggressive play if it was an obsession but if it is part of a range of play, I’d consider it a normal part of boyhood.”

So, those ‘pirates’ firing their cannons from the tree are developing courage and confidence and learning to be responsible as they release pent up energy. Best of all, their parents don’t have to feel guilty that they didn’t get around to building a fully finished cubby-house: all that creation from simple sheets and pegs is enhancing our children’s emotional intelligence.

Perhaps the best advice for parents regarding children’s play is to let your child do what they do best, naturally, and to observe your children at play. As Dr Alfano says, “Watch and learn about your child as he plays. Let the play be fanciful!”

Last Updated: December 8, 2014


International Board Certified Lactation Consultant, Parenting Editor, Author, Infant Massage Instructor & Mum of five

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