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By Juliet Richards, May 2009
Are you tired of being your children’s ‘Director of Entertainment’? Do you worry about how much they rely on the TV, computer, Nintendo or Play Station to occupy them?
The parents we meet at The Parent Practice frequently report that they would like their children to get off the screens and use their imaginations more. Often, the challenge is knowing how to make this happen.
Why is it important?
According to The Children's Society's “Play isn't a luxury, it's a fundamental part of a child's psychological and physical development.” The benefits of independent play, where children make up their own games, characters, situations, dialogues, outcomes without adult intervention or direction, are huge. This is because imagination is a really important learning tool and helps determine children’s ‘success’, not just as children, but also later in life as adults in all areas of life.
Imaginative and independent play helps children:
· Learn to solve problems – because it gives them scope to envisage different outcomes to various situations;
· Practice coping with difficult or new or strange circumstances – this can provide an outlet for some emotions and can also help children understand and develop empathy for others;
· Express themselves – explaining ideas, encouraging and responding to others all involve using a wide range of vocabulary within context;
· Develop relationship skills – how to initiate play, how to compromise, how to ‘read’ your friends’ reactions and adapt accordingly
· Learn real life skills – reading and writing and counting when shopping at pretend stores, emulating adult situations (we’ve all heard our children adopting our telephone manner in play phone calls), etc.
And yet, according to a survey by Persil called the Free Play Initative, 71% of over 2,000 parents “always plan the play and entertainment activities” of their children.
But, interestingly, more than half the children surveyed said they preferred having time to create their own games and most parents reported seeing a positive difference in their child’s behaviour after imaginative or independent play in terms of their children’s self-confidence, focus and general levels of behaviour.
So why don’t we let them play independently so much?
Probably because it’s neater, easier and more convenient and contained for us if we manage our children’s play. Independent play is usually noisy, invariably messy, they often stampede through the house, and we don’t understand it! Parents often feel their job is to manage every aspect of their children’s lives and worry that they’re not doing a good enough job if they’re not stimulating their children with educational toys or sending them to activities. We live in a pressured world we are expected to be busy all the time.
So how do we get them to play more independent games and use their imaginations more?
The key to success will probably be taking it easy to start with, particularly if you and your children are used to prescribed or organised entertainment. Ironically, you may need to set it up carefully beforehand – preparing a few toys or items, or ideas, and even having a talk through with the children to elicit their ideas, and gain their commitment. Then, let play commence!
Also, keep it short at the beginning – perhaps just 15 minutes, and then extend the period each day. It is better to stop while things are still going well, than risk going on too long, and then remember to descriptively praise the children for what they have managed to achieve: “You made up a great game with your brother just then, using your imagination and then you explained the game clearly to him so he could join in” or “you played all by yourselves for 10 minutes then which shows me you know how to make your own fun”.
If you find resistance to the idea of playing alone or making up their own games, without electronics or grown-ups, be empathetic. Reflectively listen that trying new things can feel uncomfortable and it is not unusual to be cautious about taking on new challenges at first. It may be that the children are concerned they won’t be able to think of something to do, and you may need to remind them about a time when they showed some creativity or ingenuity to keep themselves amused.
Of course, it will be much harder to encourage independent play while the TV or computer is turned on..... We recommend you establish some clear and positive rules, based on your personal values and views, to clarify when and how much TV or computer time your children are entitled to each day or week. As far as possible, ensure that TV or computer time is seen as a privilege rather than an entitlement, that children ‘earn’ beforehand by their good behaviour.
And then, when the screens are off and the grown-ups are at a safe distance, the real fun can start!