Transcript: The Importance of Play in Early Childhood

This is a text transcript from The First Time Mum’s Chat podcast. The episode is called The Importance of Play in Early Childhood and you can click on the link to view the full episode page, listen to the episode and view the show notes.

As someone whose background includes many years as a childcare educator, I’ve always been big on encouraging children to use their imagination and explore their world through play. Perhaps with our modern tendency towards busyness, I’ve observed a tendency for parents to overcomplicate play.

If you’ve listened to some of my other podcast episodes, you’ll know that I’m a fan of simplicity and being in touch with nature and this is no different when it comes to play.

I’m thrilled in this episode to be talking with Sarah Bolitho, who is a therapeutic play practitioner. Sarah and I have similar attitudes to play for children and you’ll hear some great insights in this episode on areas including pretend play and how to use it to build the parent-child relationship and simplify the idea of what it means to play.

Play is an incredibly important part of your child’s life and you’ll hear why in this episode.

Helen Thompson: Welcome Sarah. I’m very happy to have you here on First Time Mum’s Chat and I look forward to speaking with you about therapeutic play.

Sarah Bolitho: Thank you, thanks for having me, Helen. So my name’s Sarah, I’m the founder of Secure Foundations. I help parents with children aged nought to five to really connect with their young children through attachment focused play and also through some more kind of positive parenting practices, helping parents to understand where their children are developmentally and trying to help parents to do less and be more present in the moment and trying to simplify the idea of play. I’m also a clinical master’s student, so I’m almost finished now with my masters of play therapy. Yeah, so I’m nearly finished with that and really look forward to bringing more of a therapeutic lens to the work that I do with parents and children.

Helen Thompson: Wow, you’ve got a lot of experience there. So, I come from a childcare background, so I have quite a wide knowledge of play, but I always believe that play is so important for children, because as you say, it’s the way they learn, it’s the way they develop and I think a lot of kids go to school far too early when they’re not actually ready to go to school. They need more play environment before they actually go to school.

Sarah Bolitho: So I mean, play really is the child’s work. The research in neuroscience suggests that there’s nothing that lights up the brain quite like play. And I think we’re doing a little bit of circle work in terms of coming back to the importance of understanding play but I still think that we’ve overcomplicated it in the process. And I think, there’s lots of beautiful social media accounts that really do a lot of work in championing play. But I think for people that don’t quite understand it, now almost feel like they have to have, this beautiful playroom with wooden toys set up and they’ve got to have all of these beautiful play invitations.

And I think it’s just over complicated it to the fact and very simply for young children to be able to play at home, what they really need is just the freedom to actually be bored and to explore.

And through play that’s when children really get those opportunities to develop those social, emotional skills. They get the chance to be bored, they can explore frustration, they can explore the idea of cause and effect of consentive and through rough and tumble play, problem solving skills. There’s just so many amazing skills that I think parents get kind of put off by this idea of play because A, it’s either far too complicated or B, they feel like they have to do the playing. And actually when the parent takes lead of the play, the child’s no longer playing.

The very basis of play a child has to be having fun. Like they have to be experiencing joy.

Helen Thompson: Yeah, and that can come in a lot of different ways. It can come as a child going out and just picking flowers or smelling flowers or just sort of looking at a puddle and sticking a stick in it and experimenting and making sandcastles.

Sarah Bolitho: There’s an amazing program by a researcher called Karen Stagnitti, who does a lot of work around pretend play, and she runs a learn to play program and you just talking about that then, you know, the sticks in the puddle and they’re on a pirate ship out in the middle of the ocean, with this small puddle on the ground and the power of pretend play.

And I know I certainly didn’t have a lot of real deep understanding around pretend play until I started researching and studying it. Pretend play is the highest order of play. In order to be able to actually pretend in play, you have to be able to plan, you have to be able to think about an outcome, you have to be able to imagine things outside of the reality. So, through pretend play children are actually able to transcend reality into something that they’ve never experienced. I just think that’s incredible.

Helen Thompson: I agree with you because I learned about pretend play when I was doing my childcare diploma, but it was just more about in the home corner. Doing pretend play in their home corner and stuff. It wasn’t, as, I use the word exploratory, as you’ve just explained and it’s using their imagination as well. It’s developing all those skills to learn how to use the brain and how to develop their brain.

Sarah Bolitho: Yeah and also, they said this idea of actually exploring social, emotional concepts as well. Being able to explore feelings, being able to explore the point of view of somebody else and the thoughts of somebody else through play.

Helen Thompson: And imagining those people, even if they don’t exist, it’s using the imagination and as you said, going on a pirate ship, you’re imagining, what the pirates will look like. If they’ve got one leg, if they’ve got a parrot stuck onto their shoulder and how they’re talking. No, I think it’s very powerful.

Sarah Bolitho: Problem solving skills, turn-taking, social role-playing. Yeah, and I now having learnt those skills through research, apply them into my own parenting. Now that I have that kind of deep understanding about it, just have this new level of excitement. I have a three and a half and a one and a half year old and my three and a half year old was on the phone to the thermometer the other day, talking to one of his teachers.

And I just remember thinking, oh, his pretend play skills. I just remember thinking, it’s so beautiful to see. And perhaps if I hadn’t understood the true beauty of what he was doing, perhaps I would have rushed him along a bit more, but he was kind of dilly-dallying in the morning and I was trying to get him out of the house, but I just spent this moment to think, you know, what a beautiful stage of his development. And it’s allowed me to really reflect on his trajectory of play development as well and it’s just been really beautiful.

Helen Thompson: Oh, that’s lovely and I think that’s good that you do that instead of rushing him out of the house, you might just give him that moment to do that. Cause I think a lot of parents are in such a hurry these days to do so many things that they don’t actually see what the child is actually doing. And I know parents have got to rush out and get the kids to school and do all that kind of thing but if you’re a few minutes late, just because the child is expressing their feelings or expressing it through play, just give them a few minutes. You don’t have to be in such a rush.

Sarah Bolitho: Yeah. I’m glad you mentioned that actually, because I think one of the greatest sadnesses, I think of a lot of young parents at the moment is the idea of busy-ness. Busy-ness almost being a marker of success. And I did it myself when I had my first born and he was a newborn. I felt like I had to be at an activity every day. We’d have the library on a Monday, we’d have swimming on a Tuesday, we’d have something else on a Wednesday. There was this idea that we just had to be doing something all of the time.

And, really when I look back, I think, what was I avoiding doing? And I think largely I was avoiding actually just slowing down and stopping and just being present with this young baby in the moment. And I think, there’s always this idea of doing more and, and buying more and doing more activities and I know that parenting your children is stressful, but I really truly believe that when you drown out the noise, strip it right back and the parent for a relationship like everything else changes.

Helen Thompson: Yeah, I agree and I think also, allowing that child to have that time as well and if you allow them to be present and if you’re present with them, it actually calms the whole energy down because you’ve got time to communicate with your child. You’ve got time to watch their facial expressions and I do baby massage, and you can also do play with that, you know, just encourage your child to have that time for that space. And if they don’t want to have it, that’s fine. You don’t have to have all these expensive toys. I do like the wooden toys I must admit. I think some of the wooden toys are amazing, but you don’t have to have all of that.

Yeah. Just have something simple, like a blanket or a little tent and just put a few Teddy bears in it and your child they’ll make up their own ideas and even just give them a bit of paint and a bit of water and they can learn the mixing. They can learn about color and with water play, they learn all about the measuring and, cause and effect, as you said. And I think parents don’t give the children time to do that. And I think it’s so, so valuable.

Sarah Bolitho: You know, one of the most incredible play items, I think that every play room should have is a cardboard box. You know, a cardboard box is a pirate ship and then it’s a boat and then it’s a car. Yeah. I actually have a set of these ironically enough, flat pack boxes. They did come from Ikea, but they’re like flat-pack cardboard boxes. And I used them in my therapy sessions with kids. I’ve recently been delivering this led to play program to a few young children who are quite underdeveloped in their pretend play skills. And I think have had a range of experiences, but a lot of them actually just lacking in social play experience. And I think one child in particular has obviously got some quite high academic standards at home. And so with a lack of understanding around play, I don’t think there’s a great deal of joy and freedom to play independently because I think it’s highly regarded enough in terms of their family values.

So, this cardboard box initially was just around him actually having fun, right. So we’d just stack it really, really high and then we’d charge at it and knock it over. And I guess to the outside eye, people would be wondering what the heck we were doing, but there was a lot of purpose behind it in terms of trying to build that therapeutic relationship, helping him to understand that, it was okay to actually break my creation and, for him to just actually be having fun.

And since we’re nearly at week eight, he’s now using these cardboard boxes to make roads, tunnels. We’ve had a carwash, we’ve had sailing boats, we’ve had submarines, we’ve had school buses, we’ve had a cage for the zoo. And then last week we opened it up and it was a pizza oven. This same box and the development in his play from some support in terms of extending his play skills, but really just him actually experiencing and enjoying true play has been incredible to watch.

Helen Thompson: And how old is he?

Sarah Bolitho: He’s four and a half. ‘

Helen Thompson: I do some childcare and I did that with a kid. I just gave him a box. And I just let him get on with it. I enjoyed it. I played with him, but I really let him lead and like you, he just jumped in and all he wanted to do was to sit in it and he said, oh, can I have a teddy bear? He just did all those things and he wanted to tip the whole box out with all the toys in it it and I thought great. And he had a great time. And I think it is so, so important. I’m glad you also brought up the fact that it’s the expectations of some parents that they expect their child at a young age to be able to read and write. They want them to be able to get ready for school.

But that’s putting too much pressure on kids at a young age to do something that they’re not actually quite ready to do. And they’re worried that a four year old can’t write their name. What’s wrong with that? If they can’t write it by the time they’re seven or eight, okay that might be an issue, but it’s that expectation.

Sarah Bolitho: They’ll probably never use a pen and paper anyway. A lot of the schools are going paper free now, which is a separate problem in its own right I think.

And the social emotional readiness of kids is what I find the most important and also the skills that will really set them apart from their peers when they get to school. For the kids that really struggle on a social, emotional level, I think that would present them with more of an initial struggle for that transition than those that can’t write their name or can’t recite the alphabet for example. I think in a classroom environment, those kind of academic skills will be learnt. But if a child isn’t able to turn take, or doesn’t understand the thoughts and feelings of somebody else or isn’t able to process feelings, doesn’t have a toolbox of emotion processing strategies. I think that’s where they’re going to notice those biggest differences.

Helen Thompson: Yeah. I agree with you. We’ve experienced play before. I’ve done it in my childcare career and you’ve done it in what you do. So how can we bring this back to support moms, to give them the tips and give them the basic toolbox of what they can do to help their child to learn to play.

Sarah Bolitho: So I think first and foremost it comes down to, I’m very much influenced by attachment theory, but comes back to being that secure base in which you can attune with your child and put them down. I can’t tell you how many parents I’ve told that it’s okay to just put their baby on the floor and go and have a shower.

Providing them with that safe environment that they can explore. So creating what I call a yes environment. So making sure that, if they’re gravitating towards pot plants, for example, making sure those pot plants are off the ground, so they’re not eating the dirt. Wherever you find yourself saying no, no, no don’t go over there. No, no, don’t go over there. No, no, no come back. Wherever you find yourself redirecting them all of the time. That’s the place where you need to actually just reassess that environment, make sure that environment is as clear as possible and giving them the freedom to actually explore and being in attunement with them for a start.

That’s the very basis of children developing those independent play skills. Second is the idea that you don’t need to be in the middle of that play, to be connected with them through play, if that makes sense. So I don’t need to be the kindy teacher in my son’s pretend play, for example. I don’t need to do the stacking of the blocks for an infant, for example. Sometimes I get a box of blocks out and my intention is that the baby is going to try and stack them. Whereas I might just want to bang them together. So taking away my idea of what play looks like, and actually just being led by them and simplifying it. You can be playing with your baby doing row, row, row your boat, and change out some of the words for the baby’s name. So-and-so is such a delight as he kind of rowing your boat or you know, one of my favorite things to do is to you won’t be able to see me, but to like point out body parts and, and assign them to a noise.

So the nose is beep, the ears are kind of an ee, ee, ee, ee, ee. Different noises and you’ll start to find over time that your baby then starts to pop your nose and say, beep, beep or starts to pull on their ears and make the same noise. It’s just these little ways of just being in a relationship with your baby, that isn’t complicated.

So it’s really just stripping it back to this notion of just being together and simplifying the idea of not needing to do so much.

Helen Thompson: Yeah and you can do that with baby massage. You can just do it by talking to them, just lying them on the floor, go and have a shower and then come back and doing what you’re doing, or even just touching their shoulder. If you use your imagination, your encouraging your child at an early age to use their imagination.

Sarah Bolitho: Absolutely and even just narrating what you’re doing. Really young infants will learn so much from just watching you, being in the kitchen, watching you potter around. I think people kind of forget that everything a young child experiences, experiences that for the very first time.

Helen Thompson: They’re like sponges, they take everything in. They’re very keen to learn. They want to learn.

Sarah Bolitho: Yeah, the development of their brain is experience dependent so they’re wired for experience. When you realise, oh, that baby’s just seeing the grass blowing in the wind for the very first time, I’m like, whoa, that is so exciting to them. And you never have the opportunity to just lay on the grass.

Helen Thompson: Oh, I love doing that. I think that’s so important.

Sarah Bolitho: Feeling that texture, seeing that color, watching it move. Seeing how you can pull it out of the ground but if you grab a handful too big, it’s too heavy to pull out of the ground. Wow. That’s so incredible and so simple.

Helen Thompson: Yeah and even putting their little feet on the ground. Feeling it on their feet, your feet are very sensitive. So, I think parents are slowly beginning to come back to that because in childcare these days, that’s what play is all about, becoming, being and belonging. It’s all about incorporating play for them as we’re saying. I think that’s what the childcare centers are trying to get back to doing, but I came out of it, because of all the programming that you had to do on top of that. You didn’t have the chance to actually sit down with the child and you need that time instead of writing notes all the time about what they’re doing, just being with them in the present.

Sarah Bolitho: Yeah, absolutely. We’re seeing it a bit out and about, there’s lots of nature, play, play areas, being sort of redeveloped and you know, a lot of the old sort of rubbishy plastic-y playgrounds, they’re getting moved on a bit and we’re going back to nature a bit in that sense.

Helen Thompson: Yeah, nature is your own playground. Climbing trees and okay, you don’t want your kid to fall out of the tree, but being there to support them if they do fall out of the tree and, saying it’s okay. But, that’s just stuff that I think parents get a little bit overwhelmed by it all. Overwhelmed is not the right word, but I think they caretake their kids a bit too much, is what I’m trying to say.

Sarah Bolitho: Yeah. Real difference between risk taking and danger! And I think discerning the difference between taking a risk and actually being dangerous is really quite important. And take, for example, my son at the minute is really into riding his bike down hills at the skate park and yesterday he stood at the top of the biggest hill and he shouts to me, “Mum, I’m feeling really brave” and part of me was dying inside. I was like, oh, that hill is so big. And then the other part of me was, I actually really want him to be able to understand bodily awareness, to understand the sensations of feeling brave, to understand his balance, to get an understanding of his body in space.

There was so many things that he was about to learn and I’m like, well, do you know if you’re feeling brave? I just said, you listen to your body and go when you’re ready. And he was delighted with himself going down the hill. And I think, yeah, I could have said to him, get down from there that’s far too high, but I wouldn’t have actually taught him anything in that process.

So, yeah, he could have fallen off his bike and skinned his elbows, but he would have also learnt his tipping point. At what point he loses his balance and he gets an opportunity to try and correct his balance and so I think that difference between taking a risk of something actually being dangerous.

Helen Thompson: I could talk to you about this forever because I really enjoy the basis of player. I think it’s so valuable. How can my listeners find out more about you and your offerings.

Sarah Bolitho: Yes. I have a website, I’m also on Instagram at Secure Foundations. That’s probably where I’m most active and I have online coaching program. I do one-on-one parent coaching as well. And I have some eBooks and resources and things like that. They’re available for download on the website.

Helen Thompson: Do you have any final tips you can give to a first time mum?

Sarah Bolitho: Really and truly, unfollow any social media accounts that make you feel any kind of shame, fear, judgment, and tune into yourself and what is important to you? And really just focus on that relationship. Like young children are born to be attached, and that doesn’t mean that you need to be constantly attached to them.

But really just yes, slow down and really just see them as a small human being. You know when I think you come up against resistance from your children, it’s usually because we’ve forgotten that they’re a small human. That they have feelings, that they have these nuances that they think about things that they want, things and need things.

And when you step back and imagine the way that you speak to them. Imagine you were speaking to another adult who can think and feel the same and talk to your child like that, yeah.

Helen Thompson: Thank you Sarah, for being a guest on First Time Mum’s Chat, and sharing so many wonderful insights with my listeners. I’m sure they will take away some great tips on helping their children get more from therapeutic play.

Sarah Bolitho: Yeah, thank you for having me.