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Unplugging for Play: International Day of Play Celebration

Last week was the International Day of Playthe first time the United Nations has formally inaugurated and recognised the importance of Play for child development. Surprising, as that may seem to many of us in the field of Early Years Education, and the fact that there are some 675 million children under the age of 5 in the world at present (World Bank), it is now, thankfully, enshrined in the pantheon of UNESCO international observances as a day that should be celebrated, and recognised, the world over.

Why Is Play Important?

If this wasn't obvious enough, children learn best through play. In fact, the whole edtech and computer assisted learning sector attempts to capitalise on and capture the essence of play in "gamified learning" - a degree of competitive rivalry with your friends (online or offline); the endorphin hits received when you reach and exceed Vygotsky’s Zone Of Proximal Development. Indeed the adult learning sector abounds with the same and you should, if you have time, read the research on the Science of Play on the UNICEF website. It is more than informative.

But the principal is simple enough to grasp - playing is fun. And when we make things fun, we tend to enjoy, memorise and spend more time doing those same fun things. It is why the mortarboard-esque dictatorial didact might not have inspired that many children to really want to do maths. That much. I'm going to go further and say they if they did, they probably did so in spite of his (and it was primarily his) hectoring. 

Why is it so effective? Because when we do it with people we enjoy their company and pursue things together - collaboratively. It stimulates us intellectually, yes, but also socially, emotionally and, if done in the real world, physically too (I know that probably soon you'll be able to play squash in the virtual world but....yawn for about just play squash?).

For our children at Hatching Dragons, play is a fundamental pillar for everything that we do. We communicate through fun; we explore through play. We teach languages through music that we've compiled as our own proprietary song books to help families do the same, just as we've put them on youtube so that families can learn them together (hopefully not just plop the child in front of the screen to then pop off to do emails!). We help build interest and excitement by expressing ourselves in positive, engaging and fun ways (as educators) to stimulate a child's interest in something that might otherwise have been too alien, too material to grasp. We have fun with them, and they with us - project building, problem solving, group therapising as we do in our circle sessions (see here for an interesting article about the importance of Circle time to empathetic development, planning and problem solving capacities). They learn to build connections, forge partnerships, work together and push themselves - individually or collectively - to places they wouldn't have managed to before, developing those qualities of resilience, independence and autonomy that are so difficult to instill in the digital day and age.  

Benefits of Unplugging for Play

In today's digital age, it is crucial to unplug and engage in physical play with one another. And that means kids with other kids in the park, rough and tumbling with each other in the ways that they should. And it means parents with their kids, returning to their inner child and re-discovering the joy that being a kids can be. At my own house, I developed a brand new game with the kids - "blind man's boff" is what they call it. I am blindfolded and given a massage roller (any long, softish cylindrical object will do), spun in 3 circles and directed to listen out for the kids, whose objective it is to sneak past me and steal the "treasure" from one end of the room to the other, without getting "boffed". My job is clearly to "boff" and in so doing, capture them and put them in prison (the arm chair near the "treasure"), from which they can be freed by a sneaky ninja.

Most of the time we collapse in giggles. Sometimes the 4 year old claims it's not fair and goes off in a huff but normally returns because of those giggles. But it is fun, engaging and very physical and, critically, at those times we commune with one another in ways that a film, or TV just cannot and will never be able to achieve. I say that with absolutely no command of the science, research data or facts - just a parental intuition that eye contact and physical touch matters. And through that, along with laughter and fun, we connect. So, some top tips from me / us on a digital free play household and what it will produce for you:

Physical Development:

Play activities such as running, jumping, and climbing promote gross motor skills and enhance overall physical fitness for your children. It builds their confidence and self-esteem and, for the fitness freaks out there, helps build that routine for you to drag your children out on your early morning run, pre-school for that Dave Goggins mindset (for those of you who know "Who's Gunna Carry the Boats?!" see the Goggins Reddit for giggles). And if you need any further convincing, why not read the World Health Organisation's own guidance on the impact of sedentary lives on young people

Cognitive Development:

Play stimulates creativity, problem-solving skills, and critical thinking, fostering cognitive development. Again, I turn to the great work on this done by Unicef and others, that there is something in the imaginative capacities that making your own games creates. Coming up with a task of how to have fun and to do what you can to achieve it with the resources you have. For instance, during covid, we organised a rather fun game of "Ten Pin Loo Rolling", in which we piled up all of our loo rolls in the living room and had to launch a roll to knock down as many as you can. Human sculptures was also fun - mum or dad is the base and the kids have to climb on you to make weird and wonderful shapes.

Social and Emotional Development:

Play provides opportunities for children to interact with others, develop social skills, and understand emotions. Granted that in competitive games like Blind Man's Boff, it can result in frustration over "losing" and parents can take their own philosophical view as to whether it is good, right and proper (or not) to instil your children with competitiveness and learning to deal with failure, or remove it entirely in favour of social harmony akin to the Steiner model. Either way, you are exploring loss, gain, dealing with failure and success, and how to manage the emotions for yourself and of others to achieve social harmony. So it's all good in my view!

Tips for Families to Unplug and Play Together

Unplugging for play is not just important for children, but for the whole family. Here are some tips to help families unplug and play together:

Designate Tech-Free Time:

Set aside specific times during the day or week where all electronic devices are turned off, allowing for uninterrupted playtime. Preferably, I would stop any form of non-educational tech time in the week (and preferably on most of the weekends too). This has to be true for parents as much as your children - all of you will place the devices and TVs away, to play together as a family. It can be board games. It can be silly made up games like ten pin loo rolling. Or sardines. Or hide and seek (in the dark, blindfolded, at night time, across the whole house - scary and fun). But it is you together without screens.

Create a Play Space:

Designate an area in your home specifically for play, filled with toys, games, and materials that encourage active engagement. You might have a play room but personally, I find the children (depending on age) want to be with you. Ensure that your house and common areas (living room, kitchen) have places for their activities and resources that they can reach and access with full autonomy, but with a responsibility to put back and tidy up at the end.

Plan Outdoor Activities:

Explore local parks, playgrounds, or nature trails for outdoor play and family adventures. Best for this is developing a sports interest with your children. Depending on the park's facilities, football, rugby, basketball, tennis are all options. Help your children develop a skill. Take them somewhere they've never been as we do regularly with our amazing excursions at our schools. Do something outdoors, together. With no devices.

Join Community Events:

Look for local events or initiatives that promote play and join in the fun as a family. Go to the library and see what's on the notice board. Sign up to the family information service at your local council to understand what is on offer in the community. Look media (but don't do it for too long - just get the details and put that phone away!). There's so much happening across your community and plenty of ways to get your children involved in a civic activity that will teach them about community service.

Be a Playful Role Model:

Show your children the importance of play by actively participating and engaging in play activities with them. Like I said, rediscover your inner child and learn to be silly. You don't always have to be the patrician. You can be the boffer.

By incorporating these tips into your family routine, you can create a balanced play environment that promotes quality family time and strengthens relationships.

Celebrating Play on International Day of Play

On the International Day of Play, Hatching Dragons Nurseries will be hosting various play-based activities and events to celebrate the joy of play.

We will organise outdoor games, arts and crafts sessions, and interactive play experiences for children and their families. These activities will encourage social interaction, creativity, and physical movement.

By celebrating play on this special day, we aim to highlight its importance and inspire families to prioritise play in their everyday lives. Let's come together and embrace the power of play!

Join us on the International Day of Play and let your child experience the wonders of play in the real, not digital world.