‘It’s about supporting their curiosity’: how to build child-parent relationships through play

Play is good for children in myriad ways; as well as being essential for healthy brain and body development, play aids learning, boosts social, emotional and creative skills, and sets the course for adulthood – it’s even linked to improved academic achievement and better lifelong learning outcomes.

“Play is about children engaging in positive and active experiences; they’re wiring their brains to the world by touching, feeling and sensing things around them,” says Bo Stjerne Thomsen, vice-president and chair of learning through play at the LEGO Foundation.

Play isn’t just for kids; parents benefit too. Before the pandemic, business owner and father of two, Ben Veal, considered himself “the very definition” of a weekend dad. Due to the pandemic changing his working life, he spent more time playing with his sons, and believes he is a calmer, happier and more involved parent as a result. “I’ve had the chance to appreciate just how brilliant and imaginative kids are,” he says. “And I’ve been there for the small moments of joy that I would have missed before – from first steps and wobbly teeth, to camping under the stars and having a kickabout in the park.”

It’s vital that children experience a breadth of play experiences, because different types of play – from physical movement to creative play – support development in different ways. Healthy childhood development involves five key areas – physical, creative, cognitive, social and emotional development – and each area benefits from play activities.

Physical play, such as balancing, dancing, and building objects, helps develop focus, as well as the skills needed to understand mathematical concepts. Symbolic play, such as using household items to make music, encourages language skills, while pretend play involves the ability to imagine that things could be different, which builds resilience. Creative play, be that with dough, bricks, sand or paint, has been especially important during the pandemic because it’s “about our ability to tune in and understand our feelings”, says Thomsen, which helps regulate emotion.

It’s understandable that something so vital for healthy development is utterly instinctive. “Parents don’t have to teach children to play and children don’t need to learn how to do it; we’re all born to play,” says Dr Jack Shonkoff, paediatrician and founding director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. “Play is about shared experiences of discovery, learning, taking risks and exploring the world; it’s something parents and children do naturally without knowing anything about the science behind it.”

Little wonder, then, that the pandemic brought about “a tremendous change” in how families play. “That’s mainly because of the additional burden placed on parents and caregivers,” says Thomsen. “On top of uncertainty and stress, parents have had to support home learning while juggling remote working. Some parents had more time and resources and support from work, but for others it has been devastating – if your health and income were adversely affected, supporting your children at home was very difficult.”

But the lockdowns also created new opportunities for families to play together. Some children found life less overwhelming with fewer social obligations, while others embraced independent learning. “The ability to learn in a familiar setting is actually a benefit for some children – if it’s a secure, positive and enriching environment.”

Play also hones coping skills, provides stress relief and enhances wellbeing, which is why encouraging children to learn through play is so important. A playful approach to mealtimes might mean stacking cereal boxes to make different shapes at breakfast, or adding a new ingredient to dinner to find out what it tastes like. “Play gives us a different perspective on everyday life and creates opportunities to see alternatives and apply more flexible thinking,” says Thomsen. “It’s about supporting children’s curiosity (as well as your own), because a lot of this phase of our lives has been about uncertainty. But the ability to handle uncertainty – to play our way out of it – has been a strong positive.”

Amit Shah is a business owner and IT professional who spent more time playing with his four-year-old son, Ayden, during lockdown. “I wanted to enjoy these early years with my son, but I always felt I was missing out because of my very busy work schedule,” he says. “I learned playful parenting from my wife’s naturally playful approach, and having extra family time, with no commute, was a priceless opportunity to bond, make memories, and stimulate our son’s mental and emotional development.”

Play doesn’t need to be complicated or costly, but it matters that parents enjoy it too. Sharing your enthusiasm with your child is a natural starting point. Shah created games with his son based on his own love of maths. “He’s able to count, compare numbers and quantities, refer to human organs and bones using the correct medical terminology, and identify countries just by looking at their shape on a map,” Shah says.

“We’ve focused on photos instead of cartoons, encouraged physical activities and time outdoors, and replaced screen time with tactile learning resources.”

If time to play with your child seems like a luxury you can’t afford, resources that inspire play are invaluable. The LEGO Foundation playlist is an online library of family play activities, while the Unicef Parenting hub offers age-specific play prompts.

Ultimately, play is our best resource for family bonding, according to Shonkoff. “Play is a wonderful way for parents and children to get to know each other – for children to learn about human relationships and for parents to learn about what is special and unique about each child.”

Are you looking for fun and engaging learning through play activities for your children? Visit the LEGO Foundation’s Playlist

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