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Author: Lucy Rai

Participation through play

Updated Thursday, 1st December 2005

Lucy Rai explains that play helps all adults gain a better understanding of young children’s thoughts, feelings and ideas - not just the professionals who work with children

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Adults are increasingly required to take account of children’s views. A cultural shift has taken place moving us away from an expectation that it is sufficient for adults to make important decisions on behalf of, and in the best interests of, children. Children are increasingly expected to participate in decision making. Schools, for example, play a role in helping children to develop the vocabulary and interpersonal skills which will help them build responsible relationships as well as participate in decision making. The National Curriculum includes the study of Personal, Social and Health Education which requires teachers to ‘encourage pupils to express and understand their feelings’. Expressing and understanding feelings has become recognised, therefore, as a key part of both emotional health and citizenship.

This shift in attitudes has come about partly due to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1983), and partly due to developments in the British legal system. Case law resulting from the hearing of Gillick v West Norfolk and Wisbech Area Health Authority (1985), for example, established the concept of children’s ‘competence’ to make informed choices.

In addition, The Children Act (1990) requires that social workers and the courts take account of the views of children when decisions are made which affect their lives. The requirement to listen to children has presented adults with the new challenge of finding ways to help even very young children to express their views and feelings. This is not as straightforward as it may seem because asking children direct questions is problematic. For very young children, language may be still developing, but even for those children with good verbal skills, ‘talking’ may not be their favoured method of communication, particularly in response to questions from adults. Even older children may find talking hard when adults are asking questions about difficult or upsetting topics.

Professionals working with children, such as psychologists, social workers and therapists have, over the years, studied ways in which adults can better understand young children’s thoughts, feelings and ideas. ‘Play’ has been recognised as much more than entertainment or diversion. It enables children to express their feelings and anxieties as they put themselves into imaginary roles. Play is also an important way through which children develop relationships and skills.

The use of ‘play’ as a method of facilitating communication with children was at one time thought of as a specialist skill used with emotionally damaged children. Although play therapy itself, with its roots in firmly in the field of psychotherapy remains a technique used by specialist workers, many of the concepts have filtered into more mainstream understanding about communicating with children. Play, along with therapies using music and art, allow the expression of deeper emotions which can be difficult to verbalise. Participation in therapies using play, art and music are not only about expression of deep or painful feelings, they are also about having fun. Recent research led by J. Carroll into children’s experience of ‘play therapy’ suggests that play can be both a way to express feelings and retell painful stories. It is also a source of fun facilitating talking about problems through diversion and relaxation and an important way in which relationships are built.

Play, then, is an important way to have fun whilst also communicating important feelings and building strong relationships. Where an adult can join with the child’s fun, play can open up the possibility of developing relationships not only between children, but also with adults. Joining with children’s play does not have to involve the adult using specialist skills; watching, commenting on the game and being attentive to the child will communicate that parents are interested in their child’s play. Playing together can give parents and children an opportunity to reverse the usual pattern of relationships experienced by children. Through play the child can take charge and experience being knowledgeable, perhaps teaching or helping the adult - a immense source of fun as well as an important social skill for children. Adults can encourage this reversal of roles by asking the child to explain the game and tell them what to do. The ‘dumb’ grown up is a great entertainment!

For many adults joining with the game is not easy as it requires putting aside their familiar roles, letting go of their authority and realism for a while, risking appearing, to the adult world, a fool. For some, play will seem boring, irrelevant to the adult world. Peter Slade, however, suggests that:

‘One of the great gifts of life is to know how to play. When we are young, most of us know how to do this. As we get older, something of the joy dies and so-called reality sets our course to things more grim. Yet a small fire may glow on, deep inside, and occasionally flicker up. In a moment we are young again, we laugh and the world looks brighter’.

Adults can be reassured that their efforts are worthwhile and that there is no "wrong" way to play. Even watching with interest and asking the child to tell you what is happening in the game will show that you are interested and value their world. There are of course more proactive ways to join in the game, but it is adults’ attention that is important rather than expensive or specialist toys. Parents can provide resources like paper, crayons and dough which can be used to support any imaginary game but their involvement can be as simple as giving the child undistracted attention, listening and participating in child led conversations. Whether the play involves drawing, making or telling stories, it is important that the adults’ role does not slip into judging the child’s "performance". The role of being the judged performer is familiar to children (at home and at school), but free play involving an adult can give them an alternative experience where they can participate in sharing ideas and thoughts on an equal basis without the anxiety of failure.

The benefits for children and adults, therefore, can go beyond having fun. Through play, adults and children develop both their skills in talking and hearing each other. Relationships between parents and children can be deepened through shared pleasure and exploration. The involvement of adults in their world can build children’s self confidence and ability, in return, to contribute to the world of adults.

Slade, P 1995 Child Play: its importance for Human Development, Jessica Kingsley London
Carroll, J Play Therapy: the Children’s views in Child and Family Social Work 2002, 7, pp177-187


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