By Sunita Shah - Service Lead for North West London and Specialist Speech and Language Therapist in Bilingualism
Looking back at my fond childhood memories of growing up in Macclesfield, Cheshire, us kids had a fantastic time playing with friends and family. In those days it was safe to play on the streets in the neighbourhood; hide and seek, water fights, hand stands, chasing friends, chasing balls and annoying my older brother whilst he and his friends jumped over cans with their skateboards. Those were the days... fun...carefree... days filled with happiness and laughter. We didn’t need mobile phones for our Mums to monitor our whereabouts, we would just run to the command “dinners ready!”. When we were indoors we would eagerly wait for a knock on the door and a “is Suni allowed to come out and play?”.
Reflecting on these treasured days of my childhood I feel very aware of how much things have changed since then. Now that we are so governed by social media, tablets and technology. It is not just the influence of this technology but also how safe we feel our children are to have the freedoms we enjoyed. I know that bringing up my own children in Harrow I would never even let them out the front door without me by their side.
The question I really feel we need to ask ourselves in our modern world of tablets and consoles is whether we as a society have forgotten how to play. We are bombarded with marketing for so many different types of toys and games, but as a parent wanting to choose toys that will enhance your child’s development; what do you choose? As a mother myself being exposed to the world of children’s toys I find that there can be such a pressure to choose toys that help my children’s learning of letters, numbers, shapes, colours, handwriting... the list goes on! I find myself wondering whether 3 year olds really need to know the names of all the planets in the solar system or all the names of the bones in our bodies? There seems to have been such a shift towards play being a tool for developing our children’s academic abilities that we have forgotten what is really important. We need to get back to letting our children just be children! Let them play, get messy, have fun and use their imaginations!
How often do you actually just sit on the floor and play with your child? Are you able to switch off your urges to encourage your child to be focusing on learning and instead to simply let go, follow your child’s lead and pretend to be a fairy in a grotto with them or a wizard battling through an enchanting forest?
I am not saying tablets and watching TV should not play a part in children’s lives. I know myself as a full time working mum arriving home late that there is that moment of peace you get when they are watching a favourite movie or playing on their tablets so you can just get all the household tasks done!! Also in today’s technology focused world our children do need to be able to use t technology adeptly in order to be able to compete in the job market when they grow up.
We need to consider what we are exposing our children to. How much opportunity are we giving them to develop their social interaction skills, imagination and ability to communicate using language? To best achieve this, tablets and the TV need to be switched off and we need to play with our children and interact with them in a fully conscious way. There are some great board games available which develop vital skills such as turn taking and interaction and children just love to win! Most importantly these games are about having fun together, about children laughing when their parents are silly, fun and play their games... Even if you’re not following the ‘adult rules’ of how things should be done. It’s all about letting go and sharing the play experience with our children.
Sometimes when I look at my boy’s playroom it looks like Toy-r-us has just thrown up in there! The best thing I did last year was to put all my their toys in the garage in boxes and called this their ‘toy shop’. My elder boy aged 5 is allowed to go in there once a week with his little basket. First he returns last week’s allowance of toys and then he chooses a new selection of toys that he will play with for the week ahead. This ‘toy library’ system has made him appreciate his toys more, encouraged good behaviour in return for treat days on weekends, and promoted much more excitement about always having something new to play with. Most importantly from my perspective this scheme has improved his concentration skills. He is far more engaged with the toys he’s playing with as he has fewer toys to flit between.
A helpful thing to remember to do is to take a step back and think carefully before spending money on expensive toys for your children. Instead use your imagination and think of activities you can do together to help develop your child’s imagination and interaction. Things like making dens, playing dress-up and magical tea parties with dinosaurs and fairies. Take time out to bake cakes and cookies with them; it’s motivating, fun and can really bring on their language, confidence and life skills.
There is such an emphasis placed nowadays on parents needing to DO THINGS and SPEND MONEY with on children like taking them to various experiences and activity centres. It’s so important to find balance with this kind of thing. You don’t want your child getting so used to always going out to be passively entertained that when they are at home you are unable to have fun as a family. Try having fun with music and books; using interactive story telling and acting out scenes using funny voices for the characters.
Research is showing that today’s children are developing their play and imaginations skills later than children in the past. Also children’s lung capacity is decreasing and there is a higher instance of asthma. No wonder really as we don’t go out as regularly in the fresh air. This winter let’s wrap the kids up warm and go and pay in the park or the woods.
Let’s spend time with our children. Let’s teach them and remind ourselves how to let go, have fun and use our imaginations. So that when they are adults they treasure the memories they had growing up with their friends and families, having fun and just playing... just being kids