the business of play
    the business of playthe business of play

    What is play? Play allows opportunities for physical, emotional, cognitive and social growth and is often pleasurable, spontaneous and creative. Play can reduce frightening and traumatic events; it may relieve anxiety and tension and can aid in relaxation, amusement and enjoyment.

    We know how important play is from a pioneering study done in the Caribbean to work out how best to help deprived and malnourished young children. A small group of children received extra food, another group got time for play, guided by an expert. Food and play both improved intelligence and behaviour substantially, and a follow-up study showed that the effects were long-lasting.1 It seems that play can sometimes be as important as a decent diet.

    Play therapist Janet West2 notes that through play children learn about the world and relationships, it offers an opportunity for rehearsal, for reality testing, for exploring emotions and roles. Play can also enable children to express aggression and buried feelings and can act as a bridge between fantasy and reality.

    As summarised by West:

    • Play is a child’s natural medium for self-expression, experimentation and learning. Feeling at home in a play setting, the child can readily relate to toys and play out concerns with them.
    • Play facilitates a child’s communication and expression.
    • Play allows for a cathartic release of feelings and frustration.
    • Play can be renewing, wholesome and constructive.
    • An adult can more naturally understand the child’s world by observing the child at play and can more readily relate to the child via play activities than through an entirely verbal discussion.

    Child therapist Violet Oaklander explains:3 ‘Playing is how children try out and learn about their world. Play is therefore essential for healthy development. For children, play is serious, purposeful business through which they develop mentally, physically and socially. Play is the child’s form of self-therapy through which confusions, anxieties and conflicts are often worked through. Through the safety of play children can try out their own new ways of being. Play performs a vital function for the child. It is far more than just the frivolous, light-hearted, pleasurable activity that adults usually make of it. Play also serves as a symbolic language. Children experience much that they cannot as yet express in language, and so they use play to formulate and assimilate what they experience.’

    the business of play


    Allow the child to lead during play and let him give direction. Let the child determine what you will play and how within the limits of safety and time constraints. Join in a child’s play but only when invited to do so. As the child lets you into his world of imagination and creativity, give him complete control. Remember this is his world. This attention you are showing while playing with a child is essential to building his self-esteem. You are giving him the message that his world is fun and important to you, too.

    Child psychologist and executive producer of the BBC series Child of Our Time, Dr Tessa Livingstone, offers play tips:

    • Pick games you will both enjoy
    • Follow the child’s lead
    • Appreciate the effort rather than praise the ability
    • Don’t lecture or criticise
    • Don’t force the child to follow rules
    • Allow the child to take things apart
    • Give your undivided attention

    Just think about how good you feel when you have participated in something you really enjoy. That is what play is all about. When we play we have fun.

    Press the reset button and take a look at how we allow children to spend play time. Set boundaries for yourself and for the children around screen time and take a back-to-basics approach. Incorporate play into your family time and limit structured activities age-appropriately. While structured activities are part of growing up and an essential part of early childhood development, it remains imperative that young children have:

    • Enough free time to play – daily
    • A safe place to play. Children need to be in a secure place before they are brave enough to stretch their intellectual boundaries and play imaginative games.
    • Friendly, responsible adults to play with.


    By allowing children their right to play and making sure that they have time for daily, free, unstructured play, we are enhancing their natural capabilities for intense, self-motivated learning. Just let them get on with the business of play!


    1. Livingstone, T. Child of our Time. London: Bantam Press. 2005:280.
    2. West J. Child-Centred Play Therapy. London: Edward Arnold. 1994:11
    3. Oaklander V. Windows to Our Children. Utah: Real People Press. 1978:160
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