The importance of play

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Do you remember the good old days when you used to spend hours at the playground building sandcastles, fighting imaginary battles, and getting up to mischief? In the last few decades, Singapore’s playgrounds have been transformed into cookie-cutter jungle gyms and rubber mats. More alarmingly, they are becoming the domains of toddlers as older children get packed off to tuition centres and enrichment classes.

As Singapore becomes more urbanised, the amount of play that children are allowed has decreased, while the age at which they are allowed to play outside on their own has increased. “Ever since the McDonald’s Boys disappearance in the 1980s, most parents have forbidden their kids to venture out on their own,” recounts Madam Cheong, a grandmother. These days, play time for kids means fighting aliens or raising virtual pets on electronic devices. Otherwise, they are taken to an indoor, adult-organised environment where they can maximise their limited play time in an educational way.

Sometimes it feels like we’re heading down the insidious path of helicopter parenting when it comes to play. While organised play has its developmental benefits, surely having fun within a prescribed set of rules comes at a cost? 

According to the Sydney Playground Project, play is a good way for children to stimulate their imagination and take manageable risks. By learning to interact with others, kids can build their social skills, which contributes to their mental health in the long term. As they learn to problem-solve through games, they also gain confidence. If we have a rigid idea of how and where our kids can have fun, we may end up stifling their creativity and independence. 

“Play is kid’s work,” says child psychologist Dorcas Leong. “That’s how children explore and learn about the world. Outdoor play is especially important for them to exercise their motor skills.” 

Children do not always need expensive, high-tech play spaces to have fun. Natural spaces, such as the park or beach, stimulate creative and diverse play. Moreover, the benefits of outdoor exercise through old school games like catch and hopscotch cannot be underestimated. 

Here are some suggestions inspired by Brian Sutton-Smith’s book titled ‘The Ambiguity of Play’:

• Mind play: make-believe with dolls and stuffed toys, pretend cooking, dressing up
• Solitary play: arts and craft, music, water play, nature play, playing with pets
• Performance play: playing an instrument, putting on a play with friends and siblings, staging a puppet show
• Games and sports: card games, board games, ball games, martial arts, gymnastics 

So let your children play with sand and grass and you may just be surprised by what they create. Sure, it may get sweaty, sticky and dirty but which kid wants a sanitised childhood anyway?

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