Article first appeared in the Portugal Resident.
As an educator, I have always championed the importance of free play for children of all ages. Indeed, now more than ever, it is my strong belief that it is a powerful part of all children’s development throughout their childhood.
My day-to-day teaching experience has always supported the mantra that “play is the highest form of research” (Albert Einstein).
The world is only just emerging from a pandemic and research is showing us that mental health issues are at their highest on record, especially amongst adolescents. Teenagers have been apart from their friends and spent enforced prolonged periods of time isolated indoors. Inevitably, many have resorted to hours on social media or online gaming. The result is that a large part of their key developmental years has been affected detrimentally.
In the Early Years/Pre-School curriculum, all learning evolves through play. It is through play that young children are able to make sense of the world, developing their creativity, confidence and thought processes. Our three-year-olds are encouraged to explore, become autonomous and interact with their peers in play settings.
Yet, what do we mean by the word ‘play’? The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘Play’ as “to engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose”.
Play is something that we do for pleasure because we want to and is something that we enjoy doing. When we talk about play, we are referencing to pure play, meaning without the use of electronic devices.
Research shows that children and adolescents intrinsically use play to help them make sense of their lives. It allows them to make sense of their inner feelings.
For adolescents, it provides opportunities to develop independence, experiment out of their comfort zone, to take risks and to push their own boundaries during their crucial developmental years.
Therefore, play is vital for mental wellbeing in children of all ages. It should be valued in school and at home for young children and adolescents alike.
Of course, how children play is age dependant. Younger children enjoy imaginative games and make-believe, pretending to be their favourite superheroes. Older children may play board games, puzzles or card games like Uno or simply enjoy playing outside with their friends, climbing trees, playing tag or hide and seek.
All schools are now being encouraged to include play as part of the whole curriculum to ensure that all children have ‘play’ included within school time to aid students’ mental wellbeing.
At Eupheus, we have always made provision for daily play for our students. They are allowed the freedom to play on our bespoke wooden play structures and climb trees. Our school also has available balls for games, chalks for creative activities, including school floor graffiti, paper, pens, and cards for whatever form of play our students choose for their own enjoyment. Our students are always encouraged to explore their boundaries in a safe space.
We value enormously the positive influence on our students’ mental health when we organise our regular ‘Into the Wild’ days. These unique events immerse our students in a rural environment. They are encouraged to take part in GPS hikes, challenged to safely make fires and enjoy the experience of toasting marshmallows with their peers.
Our students talk freely all day, never stop smiling and are animated throughout. Free play is a key element during the day. Any educator or parent can see the power of such play when our older children are hanging from trees, playing hide and seek in the bushes and making their own shelters.
As parents and educators, naturally we recognise the importance of our children’s wellbeing and mental health. Together we must create increased opportunities to allow for pure play activities.
We are blessed living in Portugal to never be far away from the amazing outdoors in a country with an estimated 340 dry days a year! Opportunities for play are all around us from the beach to the Monchique mountains. Encourage your children to participate in the five distinct types of play:
▪ Physical play – this can include ball games, dancing, and gymnastics.
▪ Social play – playing with others.
▪ Constructive play – drawing, music, and creative activities.
▪ Fantasy play – more associated with younger children.
▪ Games with rules – Monopoly, quizzes, Jenga, Uno.
“People tend to forget that play is serious”
– David Hockney