This year marks the 30th anniversary of the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child which recognises the rights that all children have, including the right to play.

Children have an innate urge to play from birth right through to the teenage years. Freely chosen play (play which is directed by children) is critically important for all children as part of their everyday lives and access to quality, unstructured play is proven to help improve children and young people’s overall health, well-being and development.

Play benefits

Play has many benefits for children as well as being fun! Play is the most natural way for children to learn, grow and develop. Being active through play benefits children physically and helps build stronger, healthier bodies. Play supports the development of the brain and also contributes positively to children’s mental health boosting their confidence and resilience, enabling them to cope with challenges they may face throughout their lives.

By spending time mixing with others children learn respect, tolerance, problem-solving skills, how to address conflict, make connections and improve their social skills. Time spent playing allows children to boost their imagination, creativity, innovation as well as discovering how to manage risk, all essential life skills.

Challenges

Children growing up today are experiencing fewer opportunities to play for many reasons such as increasing use of technology, more structured days, educational pressures, lack of play space as well as parental anxieties.

When children have fewer play opportunities they are missing out on essential developmental opportunities which may leave them less able to cope with life as they grow older, both physically and mentally.

Fun in the winter elements

As the days get shorter and the weather gets colder and wetter it’s tempting to stay cosy indoors. However, wrapping up warm, embracing the winter elements and spending time outdoors is a great way to support your child’s health and happiness. Outdoor play is one of the most natural ways that children of any age can engage in physical activity. By having a playful and positive attitude during the winter months children can follow our lead and welcome the new challenges and experiences that winter play activities can offer. Why not go for a walk in the rain and jump in puddles, play in the snow, go stargazing, build a den or try some traditional games such as kerbsie!

Playing with stuff around the home

Good quality play doesn’t need to cost anything except time. It’s not always necessary to buy shop bought toys. Homemade or found resources can hold endless fascination and fun for children. Your home, garden and the outdoor environment are all full of ‘stuff’ or ‘loose parts’ that can be used for play. Children will find endless opportunities to use these materials and transform them into anything their imagination creates. There is no right or wrong way to use these items. Help children develop their curiosity and creativity by thinking twice about throwing away old household items or packaging.

For younger children a treasure basket filled with stuff can engage babies and toddlers for long periods of time. Materials which could be included in the basket include a large pebble, a little tin filled with small pebbles, scraps of fabric, tissue paper, a wooden comb, a small mirror, a pumice stone, shells, leaves, an egg carton, pegs, the list is endless! Loose parts should be adapted to suit the age and stage of the child. They should be checked regularly and not pose a choking hazard or be able to be poked into the nose or ears.

Play and digital technology

Digital technology is now part of our everyday lives with debates ongoing over its effect on children and young people. Time spent on screens can take away from time spent crawling, climbing, interacting, playing or exploring. Parents should manage children’s time online and the younger the child the less time should be spent on devices.

Tips for limiting screen time include setting limits and not using devices as a distraction or pacifier. Designate set times and areas as technology free zones such as meal times, before bed, in bedrooms and when outdoors. Try and set a good example and avoid being distracted by your own phone. Join in with your child’s screen time to make it more interactive and engaging. Avoiding passive screen time is especially important for babies and toddlers.

It’s essential that children enjoy a varied ‘diet’ of play opportunities and experiences. From rough and tumble play to dramatic play, from imaginative play to social play, there is no right or wrong way to play! This holiday season make the time to enjoy some good old-fashioned fun. Recreate some of your own childhood play memories and make some time for play every day.

PlayBoard - Play For Parents Guide - 2019

Play Matters – Play For Parents Guide

This article first appeared in the Christmas & New Year edition of ni4kids magazine.