PLAY – Oxygen for the Learning Brain

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Following up on several parenting webinars since the lockdown, this series of blogs are an attempt to support parents by answering some of their most common and yet essential questions. The three questions in this blog are on play.

For something to qualify as play three essential components need to be a part of it.

  1. It is purposeless and self-driven. The child has an innate sense of what is needed and will choose to indulge in seemingly purposeless tasks acquire several age appropriate skills through play.
  2. The task will have complete engagement and flow. Children tend to lose time when the play but in reality, they “Amplify time”
  3. There will be natural improvisation and continuity. As children acquire insight, a skill or mastery, they will lead to an improvised version of the same task and the continuity assures acquisition of newer skills.

To quote an example, children take empty cartons, pretend to use them as shoes, as mobile phones, as cars or container trucks and gradually also add a plot and a story and several deeply intricate ways to use the empty box to fit their imagination and their narrative, while fully engaging with the task and acquiring a range of skills that impact the several domains of their development.

Sadly, we have grown to equate need driven, goal driven, adult expectation driven “activities” to play. These activities are alright as long as the child is able to balance out these tasks with natural and free play. 

Moving to the three questions selected from the many sent in by parents:

  1. How to encourage or introduce role play?

The biggest fallacy here is that we need to “introduce” play. Like I mentioned children who have the opportunity for gadget free play time are likely to find fantasy play on their own. Everyday experiences like a visit to the grocer, a vaccination, a day in school, will be converted by their own brain into fantasy play where if they have a peer group, each one will play a role and they will switch roles. If they have no peers to play with the child between the ages 2 and 7 (often older too), will naturally use all their toys and dolls to play the other roles. This is how they will overcome uncertain situations, develop language and imagination, become aware of perspectives and solutions and most importantly make sense of new experiences and solve problems. Our role as adults will be limited to taking away gadgets to make space for this play, not intrude or record these play routines and most importantly not pry into the details unless the child tells us about it. 

  1. How to encourage individual play? My kid wants me to sit with her for everything and is not interested in doing anything on her own.

Your child no longer sees you as a parent and is treating you like a peer. This is not the healthiest way to encourage age appropriate skills. Having said this, I would like you to draw up a simple routine for both of you. In this schedule, there must be times you set aside to play together and times that both of you will work alone. This is to be adhered to no matter what. Start with small periods of time and slowly increase it. Don’t worry so much about the initial reluctance and tantrums that may arise. Change always will have small periods of resistance. Once it is safer to interact with a peer group (post social distancing rules of the pandemic), introduce her to a peer group. To adapt to a peer group, children will ned a couple of months to move from solitary play to cooperative play going through several stages of exploring peer relationships and play along the way. Teaching children about the need for space in relationships and also for time to work alone are essential life skills. Please start as early as you can.

  1. My 3-year-old son does not clean up after play even on coaxing, how do I teach him to clean his place after play?

There are two ways to look at this and for this you need to use your intuition and observation wisely. Children tend to make small arrangements in line with their fantasy and imagination with their toys and are likely to come back to it the next day and continue the game or narrative. In that case you may need to make it possible for them to play in line with their narrative. When the play is just disorganised with many things being pulled down and never replaced, check if the adults in the household are also modelling this. This can be a father who never puts back things on the shelf after use, a mother who leaves things in any place and spends a lot of time looking for things every day, a sibling who loses things and keeps getting replacements for things lost and so on. If these are not changed, expecting a 3-year-old to have the ability to clean up after play maybe rather unrealistic. Children learn by observation and modelling. Model the behaviour without sounding too preachy. You can have mat or a table where the child can put toys, they want to come back to the next day if they want to continue the narrative. In this case they are still learning to give a closure to the routine. Initially, join the child in putting back things and slowly let them do it on their own. It takes about 3 months on an average to develop a new habit. So be patient and consistent. Every time you delay or are inconsistent the child acquires the triggers to avoid learning the desired behaviour. Punishment and lecturing especially shaming the child will not hep as much as supporting them to learn the new behaviour through modelling, consistency, respect for space, imagination and routines. 

In the next blog for parents, I will be addressing three more questions and they will be regarding academic habits that may have changed in many homes since the lockdown was announced.

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