Look After Your Mind – The Play’s the Thing

Not long ago I was sitting outside a café with my wife enjoying a coffee. Nearby was a young mum with her little boy, who was about four or five years old. He was playing a game of rushing up to his mother with a menu and asking her what she’d like to order. She’d examine the menu, pick something, and the boy would run to the building next door, pause and then run back and hand mum the pretend item. Then the whole cycle would start again. The child was totally engrossed in his game and, to her credit, his mother joined in patiently.

Watching this little scenario triggered memories of the games I played as a child. An early memory goes back to when I was also about five. I remember going round in circles on a little tricycle in our front room. Mum was sitting on the couch. I was holding a piece of cloth, which I’d sell to my mother (for some reason always putting the word ‘actually’ in my sales’ pitch – perhaps I’d recently learned it): I’d circle round again, then take the cloth back and on the next pass sell it to her again. Several years later the games I played with my friends were based on the films we’d watched, mostly fantasy adventure.

I think such early play is vital for the development of young minds. The use of the imagination develops social skills. Interacting with others hones an awareness of roles, rights and responsibilities, while at an even deeper level, play-acting favourite stories cultivates a moral sense: children learn about heroes and villains, good and evil, loyalty and betrayal, justice, boundaries and consequences. At the same time, playing with friends develops language skills, strengthens friendship bonds and creates a sense of kinship held together by the shared world of the imagined scenario.

There has been a long-running debate in the UK about the value of play-based learning versus formal education. In Britain formal education begins at age four to five, whereas in countries such as Finland and Sweden it doesn’t begin until age seven and, according to an article that appeared in the New Scientist these countries have better academic achievement and child wellbeing than children in the UK. The article goes on to say that there is ‘overwhelming evidence’ of the benefits of early play-based learning and a later start to formal education.

A former British prime minister famously used the slogan ‘education, education, education!’ as part of his campaign. The word comes from Latin and means ‘to draw out’. Content-heavy formal learning requires children to learn a mass of facts, which are then reiterated under test conditions. A more profound interpretation of the notion of education sees play as a way of drawing out the benefits already mentioned. Just as importantly, play develops a playful attitude into adulthood, which goes hand in hand with heightened creativity of great value in life generally and in one’s chosen profession / area of expertise.

Steve Bowkett