As February half-term begins across the country this week, parents can use this time wisely to help develop their children’s imagination and social skills – especially by encouraging them to spend more time playing outdoors.
Here are some ideas on how to make the most of the school holidays and weekends to play.
Why is play important?
Academic research shows that active play is a natural and primary way that children learn. It is essential to their healthy growth and progress, particularly during periods of rapid brain development.
Allow a child to be free outside with no structure and you will marvel at what they can achieve. Play helps children to learn important social skills, use their imagination, concentrate and be more self-directed.
Yet too often play is disregarded as frivolous and pointless. Consequently, there’s a growing - and alarming -tendency to reduce the amount of time for active play in children’s lives - both at school and home. The truth is that playtime is not a waste of time. Research by Persil, for its "Dirt is good" campaign, revealed that:
- Nearly two thirds (62 per cent) of parents believe their children have fewer opportunities to play than they did.
- A third of children play outside for 30 minutes or fewer on an average day
- One in five (18 per cent) British children don’t spend any time playing outside on an average day
- Three quarters of British children would rather play virtual sports on a screen than sports in real life.
Time is precious
There are huge pressures on parents and it can be a real challenge for families – especially for mothers or fathers who aren’t home before bedtime - to find the time to play. The report shows that a third of parents feel they don’t have time to supervise outdoor play.
So what can parents do to address this play deficit?
In the world today, seven out of 10 children live in cities. But within most British cities, parents do have access to a park or some kind of open space or playground, where children can just play – running, jumping, rough and tumble, inventing games on the spot and seeing where their imagination takes them.
When time allows – weekends or school holidays – consider heading to the countryside or a beach (even at the darkest time of year), where you can breathe different air and be closer to nature. It doesn’t have to be as organised as going to a theme park - and it doesn’t have to cost much, either. Simple games, running races - the exhilaration of physical activity is refreshing and invigorating.
Screens are a wonderful source of both education and entertainment, but children need to be exposed to varied stimuli, so head somewhere where you and the children can explore and discover new things: woodlands or the countryside for walks, leaf finding and tree climbing; beaches and coastline for rock pooling and wave jumping.
And in cities, there are also wonderful things to do. The urban farm movement allows kids who may have had little or no contact with traditional farm environments to get up close to animals.
You can also look for inspiration from organisations like The Wild Network, with brings together thousands of people and groups which share the simple goal of getting children back in touch with nature. Their website is full of ideas for children of all ages.
What can schools do to help?
It’s vital that schools protect playtime in the school day, when kids can enjoy less structured fun in the playground.
Schools can also sign up to Empty Classroom Day – a day for children everywhere to enjoy learning outside the classroom. The idea is simple – schools across the globe unite in taking classes outside for one day. This year, it falls on May 18.
The importance of holidays
Use the holidays and weekends to play. Play is not meaningless, nor does it represent an absence of learning; it is essential. Allow children to play safely but freely outside with little structure and you’ll be amazed by their enterprise and ability to create.
We have to give active play its proper place in our children’s lives to enrich their development now and to help them grow into successful, well-rounded and happy adults. We must allow them time to simply enjoy being children.