So playtime is just spare time for fooling around between the important work, right?
Wrong. Playtime for kids IS their work time. Playtime is how kids learn to understand the world and the people around them. It’s how they learn to multi-task, deal with different relationships, problem solve and discover different aspects of themselves and others.
These skills and perceptions are all carried forward into their adult lives as their understanding of the world. If prioritised and encouraged correctly, this can have a major positive effect on their coping mechanisms. Also ultimately their self-esteem as they navigate the stormy seas of life.
In fact, extensive research over the years has indicated that play is considered so important to a child’s development that the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) has established it as every child’s right.
A child is born naturally curious and with a drive to learn, understand and integrate with others. This is irrelevant of social status, income or general life situations.
It is our responsibility as their carers and guardians, therefore, to encourage playtime in a healthy and productive way. To build on their life skills and promote their self-esteem. After all, high self-esteem makes happy humans and happy humans make a happier world for all of us.
So how do kids benefit from playtime?
Think of this question and the first things that springs to mind is the health benefits of exercise. Things like developing physical strength, stamina, coordination, intellectual development, mood improvement and so on.
These are incredibly important benefits of both active and sedentary playtime and vital in the early development of any kid’s life.
However, there are several other life and social skills that you can encourage your kids to develop by prioritising playtime and including it as a fundamental component of their busy schedules.
So what life skills can I encourage?
Playtime not only develops our physical and mental strengths and attributes as individuals, it also develops our ability to cope in a variety of social situations. It hones our ability to read others, adapt to new situations and react appropriately. Basically, it teaches us to integrate well into “the pack” so to speak. Sounds a bit weird? It’s not really.
We, as humans, are designed to function as part of a greater social structure, just like our hairy, more monkey brained ancestors. Kids learn this skill young. Age zero to 5 in fact. And what they learn young stays in their brain and becomes an integral part of their wiring.
Pass on your wisdom
It’s our responsibility as their parents and guides (basically the village elders!) to encourage this and assist where possible. It’s a global pack now. What once was a fairly simple pyramid style social structure is now a constantly changing, complex global “village” full of diversity and new ways of thinking.
It requires strong life skills to continuously adapt, communicate and socially integrate. So pass on some wisdom and encourage a few of these skills…
Teamwork (the obvious one!)
The first social skill that springs to mind when you think of kids playing together is teamwork. You know, the kind of stuff we, as adults, are forced to do by corporate bonding days out paintballing each other or throwing each other off zip lines.
Well, kids don’t need quite as much structure as us grown-ups in this department and it still comes naturally to them to want to play with new people as a way to get to know them. Great! Let’s encourage this. Team Building can be done through the obvious ways of team sports and group games.
However, this isn’t every kid’s cup of tea and it might discourage a more introverted kid from trying to get involved. This may lead to them feeling a bit isolated from their peers…which isn’t a nice feeling and is counter-productive.
Teambuilding outside of sports teams
Teamwork for the “non-sporty” types can also be developed through quieter activities like art and crafts, scavenger hunts, nature walks or even make-believe games. You know the kind…when all the duvets in the house end up in the living room and all of a sudden you’re building a fortress to protect your kingdom from dragons. Anybody? No? Just me?
Anyway, opportunities to learn skills like problem-solving, sharing, assertiveness, the inclusion of others and just learning to have fun with other people are abundant here so bring it on!
You can encourage this by taking a back seat and observing/supervising your kid’s playtime from a distance. Let your kids work through any problems and find solutions together. Yes, it may be incredibly frustrating and take four times longer and you might be soooo tempted to wade in there with your grown-up brain and fix everything for them. But here’s the thing.
The purpose of play is not to get to the end result of the game…it’s to learn to problem solve and multi-task and work together to find a solution. So let them make mistakes, let them do things wrong, let them fall over and pick each other up again…that’s the aim of the game!
Just as important as knowing how to work as part of a team is developing your ability to express yourself as an individual. Realising the value of your own particular traits and points of difference early on in life has a huge positive impact on self-esteem and inner confidence all the way into adult life.
Learning self-acceptance early on also gives your kids the ability to accept others’ individuality and uniqueness, leading to the ability to adapt much better to new social groups and situations. What does this mean?
Basically, they’re gonna have an easier time of it in life if they’ve learned at a young age to accept themselves and others. After all, it’s everybody’s differences combined, both in the grown-up world and the kid’s world alike, that offers a diverse range of skills and specialities to contribute to the group as a whole.
Encourage your kids to express their individuality by becoming involved in the conversation every so often. Ask open-ended questions about each child to allow them to talk about their individual points of difference.
Encourage the kids to do the same with each other and become curious about others. Teach them about respectful curiosity and encourage tolerance, understanding and a genuine interest.
This benefits everybody as they get to share their “selves” with each other. Broadening their little minds and giving them a new perspective and a wider sense of what is “normal” in different people’s worlds. Yes, it all sounds very grown up but social development and self-esteem starts in the early years.
Learning to communicate effectively and allowing others to communicate. Well, how amazing and easy would life be if we were all experts at that? I reckon 90% of arguments, both for little people and big people (that’s us!) are started because of poor communication skills rather than actual irreconcilable differences.
Allowing kids time to play together not only allows them the opportunity to learn how to communicate with each other, but it also teaches your kid how they themselves communicate best and what style works for them.
For example, put a bunch of kids in a circle together and there’ll inevitably be “the talkers”. Those who seem to be consumed by a gripping fear of losing their hold on the conversation. They talk and they talk and they talk, sometimes with valid points to make. But sometimes just to make sure they hold their place in the group.
And then there’ll be the non-talkers who are perfectly happy to let the talkers do their thing. The very thought of speaking in front of a group consumes them with terror.
I’m the second one by the way and I’m happy with that. Let’s just say I’m never gonna sign myself up to give a TED Talk or go into politics. But I’ve figured out my most effective methods of communication over the years and now I know what works for me.
They don’t need to be politicians
Just because you’re not great at public speaking, doesn’t mean you’re not great at communicating. So, my point is, playtime can let each child figure out what their most effective method of communication is and learn to develop this.
This can be encouraged by teaching your kids from an early age that they have the right, and the opportunity to talk, should they wish to. Not everybody needs to be a speech giver but it is important that they know that what they have to say. However they choose to say it, is just as relevant as what anybody else has to say.
Recognising the Need for Downtime:
Very important and yet incredibly underrated. This crucial life skill can mean the difference between a balanced, happy and productive existence. Or one fraught with stress, anxiety and a lack of mindfulness.
Unfortunately, many adults ignore their need for downtime, disregarding it as weak, unproductive or unnecessary. This can lead to health patterns related to chronic stress. Issues such as heart disease, cholesterol, mental health issues or even just a general lack of zest for life.
Breaking Societal norms
Unfortunately, all too often in today’s society, it is considered normal to feel overworked, stressed, unfocused, chronically fatigued and generally unhealthy. We are conditioned to plough through anyway and keep going, and this is what our kids learn is normal.
Everybody now needs to work more because everybody works more. But imagine if we could teach the next generation to work a bit less. They could learn to spend a bit more time on the important stuff.
Thankfully kids are born very self-aware and know when they need to be alone. They go off to a quiet corner and play by themselves to wind down. Allow them to do this, and encourage it as just as important as teamwork and group play. They will maintain their self-awareness and ability to self-regulate.
Learn what’s worth investing in:
Take some wisdom from Kenny Rogers…”You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ’em, Know when to walk away and know when to run.”
Actually, there’s a surprising amount of wisdom to be found in country and western lyrics.
Basically, learning to recognise at an early age when something is a valid problem. One that’s worth investing time in and when something is a “write off” will save your tiny human hours and weeks of wasted energy and heartache down that path we like to call life.
Learning takes time
This skill usually takes a few years, decades (or even centuries) to develop…and some of us never learn! But it’s no harm to begin sowing the seed early on in life. Letting their little brains begin figuring out when it’s worth spending a bit of extra time thinking outside the box.
This helps them to form a solution (which may just be a jig-saw puzzle box by the way) and start to know when it’s time to call it a day and invest their energy elsewhere.
So encourage it by becoming involved if they ask for your help. Don’t offer them your solution or advice. Help them to think their way through it by asking questions and offering hints. This encourages their brain to think productively. It also teaches them that their thoughts and opinions are just as valid as the grown-up people.
Don’t over complicate it
So, in short, the human the brain develops fastest between the ages of zero and five years old. That’s a massive responsibility to us parents who, quite clearly, have no idea what we’re doing.
Thankfully, as a species us humans are initially hard-wired to take the good from life. Seeking challenges and opportunities to develop our skills with a natural, balanced and healthy approach. Our kids are little buddhas, born with all the right equipment to grow into healthy balanced big humans.
All we have to do is keep them safe and allow them to do this. Tempting as it may be to resort to screen time for a mess-free distraction, try to see passed the noise and paint marks on the walls.
Look toward the end result of a confident, functioning and happy adult. Save the screen time for those days when a 6th coffee just isn’t cutting it. Remember, us grown-ups need our downtime too.