Most parents would agree that childhood should be a time when children should be allowed to be just that – children. When I was a child, it was acceptable to walk to school on my own and to play with friends in the street for hours on end, returning home in time for a meal. Children's television was not on all day and computers were not yet present in every household, so we instead had to play to entertain ourselves. When it comes to our own children however, is that what we want for them – or do we need to change with the times?
Childhood is undeniably a special time and, despite the encroachment of technology into our lives, all parents want to preserve the magic of childhood for as long as possible for their own children. In many ways, playing outside is the embodiment of these ideas of childhood as it represents a carefree and simple pastime. But as well as fulfilling the notion of childhood, playing outside is also vitally important. Dr Claire McCarthy from the Harvard Medical School suggests that there are six reasons why playing outside is crucial for children: sunshine (in order to get a vital dose of vitamin D); the importance of physical exercise; having unstructured time to amuse themselves; taking risks; socialising with other children; and appreciating nature.
Many prep schools have embraced the importance of children enjoying their childhood and are fully aware of the impact play has on their development, long after they leave the Early Years curriculum behind. Play comes in many forms but the opportunities for play that most prep schools often offer are more than just fun. At my own school, we are very proud of our woodland; the children spend hours collaborating with their peers to build dens that develop over a period of time to provide a sanctuary of child-initiated imagination and creativity. Importantly, there is no instant gratification in building the dens as they are projects that are planned and nurtured through discussion, negotiation and dialogue. Play encourages children to learn how to interact with their peers, to think creatively and to control their emotions. Disagreement, conflict and finding resolution strategies between the children are all part of the learning process when taking risks and working towards creating something as a team. Writing in The Independent, Dr Peter Gray, a psychology professor at Boston College sums this up perfectly: 'The most important skills that children everywhere must learn in order to live happy, productive, moral lives are skills that cannot be taught in school. Such skills cannot be taught at all. They are learned and practised by children in play.'
"Play encourages children to learn how to interact with their peers, to think creatively and to control their emotions. Disagreement, conflict and finding resolution strategies between the children are all part of the learning process when taking risks and working towards creating something as a team."
As children, we all benefited from this time spent outside yet the current generation spend a great deal of their 'free' time indoors, often in front of electronic devices and so miss out on these activities. The challenge for parents is to find the happy balance between many of our own childhood experiences whilst not restricting children from the developments and changes in today's word. No sensible parent wants to wrap their child in cotton wool, so what can we do to help them?
1. As adults we need to give children space. Too much of our children's lives are now organised by adults rather than allowing them to be left to play on their own. We need to provide opportunities for children to direct their own play with a decreasing amount of adult supervision or intervention to avoid accidentally adopting the so-called 'helicopter' or 'snowplough' approaches to parenting. They need to learn by their own mistakes.
2. Allow your child to get bored. Children regularly take additional classes, tutoring and clubs outside of school rather than pursue hobbies of their own. How many of the clubs or activities your child does each week were independently initiated – or did you encourage her or him to do them? We need to avoid overfilling children's schedules as they need time to feel bored. Using their imagination to problem solve and entertain themselves is a vital skill. You cannot timetable boredom and letting your child experience downtime helps to cement all the things they have learnt during the day.
3. Allow your child to take risks. The need to take risks and show courage is crucial for a child's development yet as parents we want our children to be safe and secure. How will they ever learn what they are really capable of doing if we never let them take any risks? As they grow up, this may develop into a lack of confidence or poor resilience to face life's unavoidable challenges. As parents, one of the hardest things to do is to step back – even if this means our children will scrape the odd knee or end up feeling the pain of missing out on team or orchestra selection. You cannot fight their battles; they need to learn from their own mistakes.
"Any interaction with peers which involves collaboration, sociability or confrontation of any sort will undoubtedly develop the vital skills of resilience and executive function. But parents need to limit the amount of screen time."
With these three points in mind, how then do we merge the increasing role technology plays in everyone's lives with the need for physical play with friends? Firstly, I believe, that as a parent you need to make sure that your child spends as much time (if not more) outside playing as they do online. This is not to say that playing online is not without merit; despite the practical differences, in many cases it is still a form of playing with friends. Any interaction with peers which involves collaboration, sociability or confrontation of any sort will undoubtedly develop the vital skills of resilience and executive function. But parents need to limit the amount of screen time.
The second key thing to remember is to be aware of the skills required in the games your child plays online. When your child plays screen-based games, make sure that they are games which use skills of decision-making and problem-solving, enabling them to be creative and decisive. Avoid games where violence is key, even if they use the skills listed above, as there has been a lot of research to suggest that violent games can encourage aggressive and violent behaviour in children.
We cannot hide from the fact that society is changing and the demands on the younger generation are different to the demands we had growing up. The pressures on children today are undeniably greater as the influences of the 'adult world' increasingly encroach into our children's lives. But through encouraging play, we can preserve the key benefits of childhood for longer. Prep schools have long embraced this concept and allow children to have the very best of all opportunities, both indoors and out. As parents and educators, we all have a responsibility to ensure that the younger generation really have a chance to focus on the only really important thing in their lives – their childhood.