Play away

With the possible exception of shadow chancellor Oliver Letwin,
most people would accept the importance of children’s play.
Letwin’s recent outburst, questioning the need for the
Children’s Play Council and criticising the £200m of
Lottery funds pledged through the Children’s Play Review,
flies in the face of most recent research. The Rumbold
1990 said purposeful play is “a powerful motivator,
encouraging children to be creative and develop their ideas,
understanding and language”.

The pivotal role in providing purposeful play usually falls to
the child’s parents. But while playing with one’s
children can sometimes be a delight, it can also seem a daunting or
even horrifying prospect. Thousands will currently be facing the
annual conundrum of what to do with the kids during the summer

Some will seek out summer play schemes, paying an average of
more than £70 and in some areas up to £220 a week,
according to the national child care charity Daycare Trust. But
while play schemes can be an effective way to keep children
occupied while their parents go to work, they cannot provide the
relationship bonding benefits that families gain when they play

It is a situation that has been recognised by the
Children’s Society and the Children’s Play Council
whose annual Playday is being organised this year along the theme
of Families at Play to encourage more parents to spend time with
their children.

According to child welfare specialist Lucy Rai, we should not
take parents’ natural ability to play with their children for

“Many parents do feel very inhibited when it comes to playing
with their children,” she says. “They may feel foolish or bored by
it or perhaps they don’t fully understand the significance
that play has in their children’s lives.”

Others may not have the confidence to play with their children,
feeling they don’t know enough about the “right way to

Rai, who lectures in the school of health and social welfare at
the Open University and contributed to the recent BBC series
Child of Our Time, stresses that there is no “right way to
play”. Often it is enough simply to be there, watching and taking
an interest while the child paints a picture or completes a

Rai advises parents to try to treat their children as equals
during play, not to be judgmental and to let the child take

She points out that family play is not only important for the
child. It also provides an opportunity for the parents to bond with
their child and can serve a means of communication, particularly
when broaching difficult or upsetting issues.

“Play is children’s first form of communication. It can be
a good way of communicating issues that the parent and child may
have difficulty talking about.”

However, Rai stresses that play should always be regarded
primarily as fun, rather than as some sort of therapeutic

“You don’t need any specialist skills or expensive toys to
play with a child. In fact the play activity is not at all
important,” she says. “It’s the parent’s attention, the
quality of the relationship and the communication that surrounds it
that matters.”

Play tips for parents

  • Make time to play. Set aside some time when you can avoid
  • Don’t be embarrassed to play. Childish activities can be
    fun for you too.
  • Let your child choose the game and take charge of its
  • Join in. If your child is on the floor, sit on the floor as
  • Play dumb. Your child will enjoy teaching you the rules of a
    game or how a toy works.
  • Don’t take over. Offer help if necessary but let your
    child solve problems on their own.
  • Try not to make judgements about your child’s
  • Offer plenty of praise and congratulations.
  • Use your imagination – everyday objects can make excellent
  • Have fun.

Choosing a play scheme

These Ofsted guidelines may help parents to choose a summer play

  • Decide if you want a scheme that covers a wide range of
    activities, or one that offers specialist activities such as sports
  • Check to see if the play scheme is registered with Ofsted.
  • Check the age range and number of children the scheme
  • Check how the scheme is organised. Will the children have a
    nominated adult? Do the staff wear a uniform so children can
    identify them easily if they are worried or upset? How does the
    scheme assess and minimise any risks?
  • Check to see if the certificate of registration is on display
    and find out about the policies and procedures the scheme has in
    place. For example, how do they deal with bullying? What happens if
    a child is ill? And what procedures do they have in place if a
    child has an accident or needs medical treatment?
  • Does the scheme ask for details so that you or someone else you
    nominate can be contacted in an emergency?
  • Does the scheme ask for enough information about your
    child’s likes and dislikes, medical needs or dietary
  • Check what your child needs to bring each day. For example,
    food and drink, extra clothes, sun cream and a hat, money for
  • Ask what outings take place away from the premises.

Mother courage

The school year is ending but for one mother, because of her son
being bullied, it can’t come soon enough

The end of the school year is looming, and we won’t be
sorry to see the back of it. James has had a dreadful year at
school. He still has no friends and goes to school every day
knowing that he will have to endure name-calling and being excluded
from playground games.

The school talk the talk of anti-bullying policies, but
James’ problems are not going away, and his unhappiness is
translated into confrontational behaviour at home, and secret
eating, which in turn exacerbates his weight problem.

Last week he had an especially difficult day at school and
decided that he didn’t want to go to his childminder’s
but wanted to come home. So, at the end of the school day he left
the playground on his own, walked home and crossed a busy road and
let himself into the house. (He’s seven years old.)

Sarah our childminder, meanwhile, was standing in the playground
waiting for him and becoming increasingly frantic. When she still
couldn’t find him after 10 minutes, she went to the school
secretary who rang our home and was shocked to hear James on the
other end.

The school tried to contact me at work but couldn’t reach
me. Sarah, with the other children she looks after in tow, drove to
the house but James refused to come with her. He lay crying on the
floor and said he wanted to stay at home. She eventually managed to
get hold of my husband who came home from work to look after

When I finally got a chance to talk to James, I tried to make
him understand how worried everybody had been about him and to
explain that he can’t just leave school without telling
anyone. He understands this, I think, but doesn’t understand
why he doesn’t have any friends, why he is routinely excluded
from playtime games and why, when he sits down to have lunch,
children move away from him. I don’t understand that

On a more positive note, we finally have our appointment with
the child and adolescent mental health service. It’s been a
long time coming, and we have a lot of hopes invested in it – watch
this space for news about how we get on.

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