Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
Image of Hilary Wilce

Why children's play matters

Published By: Sunday Express - 08 Apr 2007

Can you remember playing as a child? The chances are that the pictures you conjure up will involve something outdoors and sociable -- maybe making a den in the woods with your friends, or playing in the park. There probably won’t be any adults in your memories, or any shiny plastic toys, because the best experiences of childhood play are almost always about creating your own private world, from whatever materials come to hand.

Then think about children today. According to recent surveys, one in three eight to 10-year-olds never goes outside without an adult, and the average child spends something like three hours a day watching television or playing computer games. Children are also given mountains of toys, so instead creating a house out of blankets and chairs, they get out the play tent, or crawl into the Wendy House. And, anyway, there often isn’t much time for playing, what with driving to and from judo and dance classes, and staying on late after school at the homework club.

We all now understand that this way of life is bad for children’s physical health. Obesity and childhood diabetes are sky-rocketing. But now there is also a growing awareness that might also be damaging our children’s social, emotional and intellectual development.

These days, many schools are seeing an increase in learning difficulties like Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder and a growth in aggressive and anti-social behaviour in the classroom. Teachers also report that many young children seem timid, and unable to do much for themselves. And education experts fear that all these things could be connected to a lack of play.

“Play is where children learn all the basic concepts that underpin their understanding once they get to school,” explains Sue Palmer, a literacy expert and author of a book about modern child-rearing, Toxic Childhood. “Think how much you learn about physics from making a mud pie. And it's where they learn essential social skills like turn-taking, and develop their creative and imaginative skills.”

“We’ve just done a review of the literature on play, and there’s a lot of evidence coming out of new brain research that play develops children’s brain synapses,” says Issy Cole-Hamilton of Play England, a lottery-funded project to promote children’s play. “Children really do need just to play.”

And Sally Goddard Blythe, director of the Institute of Neuro-Physiological Psychology, who has worked with hundreds of primary-age children to show how improved balance and coordination – skills traditionally learned through active play -- help school achievement and behaviour, says, “ Effective learning begins not with formal education but with the process of training the body and mind through interaction with the physical world.” Her forthcoming book, What Babies Really Need, explores these links further. “Play is when children have time and space to exercise their curiosity, to explore their physical world, and engage in imaginative play and magical thinking,” she says.

In fact play is powerful enough to improve child development under any circumstances, according to researchers at the Institute of Child Health, at University College London, who found that even malnourished youngsters in poverty-stricken Bangladesh showed a nine-point leap in IQ when given chances for stimulating play, while children in Jamaica who were encouraged to play throughout their childhood had much better IQ and reading levels at 18 than their counterparts who weren’t.

But children in the UK now get sadly little of it. A primary school head in south Wales says some of her new pupils have to be taught how to walk on bumpy grass, because they have never allowed off the pavement by their parents, while an infants head on the South Coast, who has to spend time teaching her four-year-olds such basic skills as how to hold a conversation, laments the passing of playing in the street, when young children were able to pick up all kinds of life skills from tagging along with older playmates.

“All the research shows that play supports intellectual, physical and social skills,” says Pat Broadhead, professor of playful learning at Leeds Metropolitian University. “I have been working with teachers who have been introducing more play to reception and year one classes, and they all say they have seen behaviour improve, and the children become more motivated.

“The important thing is that when children play, they are in charge, and they take ownership of their learning. In playing, they use reading, writing and maths, and they process things that have happened to them, or play out things that worry them, or resolve their own conflicts When I working in York, for example, where there had been a lot of flooding, I saw children using boxes and pieces of fabric to play all sorts of games about the floods.”

So why has something as organic and natural as play gone out of the window? Play experts point to smaller homes and gardens, busier parents (who don’t have the time or energy to clear up children’s mess and wash dirty clothes), a risk-averse society, the growth in electronic entertainment, a test-driven school curriculum, and the danger of traffic and fear of strangers which make parents keep children indoors. More children are also in pre-school childcare, where play opportunities are often highly structured, or do an extended school day, where activities are always supervised. Meanwhile play areas and parks can be run-down and unsafe, and adult pleasures tend to be ranked higher than children’s welfare – in the UK there are 80 acres of golf course for every acre of children’s playground.

So what can parents can do to make sure their children get enough free and unfettered play?

“First of all, never underestimate the importance of it,” says Margaret Morrissey, of the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations. “And remember what children can get from a basin, some wooden bricks and a spoon. Things are very aggressively marketed at parents these days, but children don’t need expensive toys. Turn them out in the garden with four plant pots and a few things to put in them and let them get on with it.’”

“Let children play on their own, and don’t step in and say ‘Stop, do it this way’,” says Issy Cole-Hamilton. “Play with them, but don’t dominate what they are doing. And make it clear that you value what they are doing, and don’t make them feel it’s ‘only playing’.”

Parents can also press for social changes, says Adrian Voce, director of the Children’s Play Council, which champions the cause of play. “Challenge your local authorities to do more about traffic calming and poorly maintained play areas. Parents of young children are an important part of the electorate. They should be asking that we prioritise things like safe routes to the park and more places to play.”

Childhood expert Tim Gill agrees. He has been evaluating neighbourhoods where traffic has been calmed and says that as soon as places feel safer, children come out to play. “So one thing we should all press for, as a starting point, is a 20-mile-an-hour speed restriction in all built-up areas. Also, parents can talk together and agree to give their children a little more freedom. They can say things like ‘If you let your children walk to school, I’ll let mine.’

He, and other experts, now feel that the tide may be turning back in children’s favour, with Play England’s new national £15m play project underway and a new awareness in schools that young children must be given time to play.

“But one thing I think we all need to rediscover,” he says, “is the importance of a little benign neglect, and learning to look the other way!”


Types of play and why they matter

Active play, such as running, jumping, hopping and skipping: children learn balance and coordination, and build their health, strength and confidence

Risk-taking play, such as climbing trees and riding bikes: children learn to assess risks, test boundaries, know their limits and look after themselves

Imaginative play, such as dressing up, making things and enacting fantasies: children release their creativity, free their minds, assimilate new learning and process troubling thoughts and feelings

Social play, such as playing games, hanging out with other children, and undertaking joint endeavours: children learn to interact with others, work in teams, negotiate, take turns, speak, listen, solve problems and achieve goals

Solo play, such as reading, playing with toys, creating a private world: children learn to stretch their imagination, get to know themselves better, enjoy their own company and discover their own resources


As a teacher, Jane Waller, 42, knows that by allowing her children time and freedom to play she is helping them build vital skills.

“Max, who’s nine, is doing a lot of playing with Playmobile at the moment, and Pippa, who’s seven, sometimes plays with him. He’s got a pirate boat, so there’s lots of imaginative playing about pirates, and fighting, and finding treasure. Munro, who’s 4, lies on the floor playing with his cars and staring at them, which is all about working out how things work.

“They make dens, and they used to do lots of playdough and junk modelling when they were younger, and now we sometimes do cooking together. Max has also started doing lots of reading and playing chess.

“I’m a great believer in letting children get bored. It pulls on their creative resources, and when they make up a game they learn to maintain focus on something they are interested in -- which is a core skill for just about everything.

“Sometimes they play in their rooms alone, and sometimes together. When they play together they’re learning about social interaction, and negotiating and team work. There can also be lots of rough and tumble on the sofa, which is very good for learning about all those things like: ‘If I sit on that someone that hard, it hurts, but if I sit on them this hard, then it doesn’t. ”

“I think children need lots of physical activity, and I also think you have to do things as a family, so at the weekends we go for bike rides and walks, and they will sometimes go out of our sight, although they obviously never go out yet alone.

“They don’t have computer games, or go on the internet, except when they have to, and they watch television more or less like I do – to relax when they’re tired.

“I think being a teacher helps me know that children get round to things in their own time, and there’s no need to rush them about from this activity to that. And I also think that if they are allowed to play freely, without anyone telling them how they should be doing it, then they get to explore everything -- their emotions, their abilities, their relationships. It encourages their curiosity about the world and gives them an innate confidence about their own ability to understand things.

“But when I asked Pippa what she thought what playing was all about, she said. “It’s to have fun!”