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July 5, 2016

There are huge benefits for your child when you enable and participate in their play time. Brainwave Trust educator Miriam McCaleb shares some insights about the best ways to get involved.

The United Nations High Commission for Human Rights recognises play as a birthright of every child. Play is an essential aspect of human development, contributing to the growth across all domains of development (physical, cognitive, language, social/emotional).

Children need to play.

They need it almost as much as food or water. And just as the type and amount of food and water can be the difference between surviving and thriving, the same can be said of play. We could think of the variety and quality of those play experiences on the ‘play menu’ as having varying nutrition profiles.

Firstly, attention to the play menu reinforces that secure relationships underpin everything. They are the essential ingredient to human flourishing. It is a secure attachment relationship that allows a child to lose himself in play, immersing himself in discovery and mastery of newideas and skills. And play provides opportunities for relationship-strengthening moments of connection between children and their significant adults. These moments also help children to understand the social world, and therefore their culture.

Even a few minutes of focused play has the power to send vital messages to a child (‘I am valued! I can make worthwhile things happen!’) And by allowing children to lead the play, adults add to the moment a rush of opioids, those learning-enhancing, feel-good chemicals in the brain. To return to the food metaphor, we could liken play that is both adult-supported and child-led to being as beneficial as fruit and veggies.

So what does child-led play look and sound like?

It is what I describe as ‘hanging out on the floor’ with a child. It might involve language of description (“Oh, you’re putting the red block on top of the blue one!”), the language of clarification (“Would you like me to empty this out?”) and the emotional language of appreciation (“Wow! You’ve built that right up to the top – tino pai!”).

These relational moments are also believed to contribute to the production of noradrenaline, helping the thoughts and impressions of this warm, playful interaction become fixed in memory. What a gift! Delightful memories of parental connection contribute to building a child’s sense that he/she is fun to be with, and that time with other people feels great.

This all differs from adult-dominated play, which is more likely to include the language of instruction (“No, cows can’t fly. Put it in the paddock.”), of correction (“You’ve drawn the spider wrong. Count the legs – it’s not supposed to have 10”), or of criticism (“Now, try not to be so messy with the dough.”). This sort of play can reduce dopamine levels in a child’s brain and activate stress chemicals – not only is nobody having any fun, but those chemicals can actually impede learning.

Imagine you’re a toddler – which series of interactions would you rather be in? For that matter, imagine you’re the adult involved in either type of play. Which is more fun? And, in the words of renowned child psychiatrist Dr. Bruce Perry, “If it isn’t fun, it isn’t play”.

Child-led play is a tangible way for adults to practise genuine responsiveness to their children. With babies, this is an excellent opportunity for adults to pay attention to the wealth of preverbal communication that babies call upon – gaze, smiles, or turning away from overstimulation.

Even a few minutes of focused play has the power to send vital messages to a child (I am valued! I can make worthiwile things happen!)

When adults are truly responsive, they will recognise their children’s cues to engage in rough and tumble (or even the sweetly-named gentle and tumble) play. When playing sack o’ potatoes with a preschooler or pretending to nibble a toddler’s feet, whether enabling siblings’ playful wrestling or encouraging boisterous play at the park, adults do more than the obvious. It is suggested that the emotion-regulating areas of the brain’s frontal lobes are stimulated by physical play, not to mention the benefits of positive touch – like invited tickles - on the developing brain.

And just as they need physical play, children need the opportunity for quiet times. Long periods of uninterrupted play are a great gift for infants, toddlers and children. Adults would serve children well to respect their focused playtime in the way that they would refrain from interrupting a white-coated, microscope-gazing scientist. Adults can support this by providing opportunities for quiet concentration and by thinking about the impact of environment on play – for example, how often is the TV going? In these days of open-plan living, are there cozy places to be alone, or to read books with just one other person? Are there breaks from the interruption of radio and stereo?

But there will be times when children invite interruption, when they invite their adults to play, with a smile, a gaze, or a verbal invitation. Whenever possible, adults should accept such an invitation (even if the dishes are waiting or Facebook is calling!) and engage in child-led or physical play.

It’s also worth saying a couple of things about toys:

For little babies, the most important toys are their significant people – whose voices, smiles, twinkling eyes and comforting bodies are the only toys that young infants need – as well as baby’s own body, of course. During early infancy, there is so much work to be done in figuring out 'where I begin and Mummy ends' and 'how I move in space' that additional toys can interrupt that work.

As babies become ready to explore objects, keep them simple. A ball, a wooden rattle or a cotton scarf are all excellent choices. They are intellectually and physically challenging, as well as mightily entertaining. Toys with flashing lights and touch-responsive noisemakers are just not necessary. Remember: the more simple the toy, the more complex the play. The more complex the toy, the more simple the play.

Similarly, toys for older children are most useful when they are open-ended, that is, can be used in a variety of ways. A plastic petrol pump will probably only ever be a pretend petrol pump, but a solid wooden box can be a petrol pump, a cave, an island, a waka, an operating table... Crayons, blocks, books, dough and simple toy people are other examples of worthwhile toys.

It is always worthwhile considering that all children have different temperaments, different sensitivities, and therefore what is fun play for some children may be overwhelming for others. This is especially true for children who are less developmentally mature. These children may need more support and uninterrupted time to play, as well as more time to prepare for play. The key to judging this: are there indications that the child is finding play pleasurable? If it isn’t fun, it isn’t play.

To summarise: adults who provide responsive interactions in child-led play, endorphin-rich physical play, simple and open-ended toys, and quiet time for uninterrupted play will go a long way to providing relationship-rich, brain-enhancing experiences for children. These are gourmet play experiences. ′

Miriam McCaleb has been involved with the Brainwave Trust Aotearoa since 2005. She's an ex-university lecturer living, writing and parenting in rural North Canterbury. Check out her blog at

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