Friday, 6 June 2014

Play and mental health: mucky is good!

My colleague, Yvonne Owen-Newns, is the Children & Young People’s Facilitator at PAVO.  As part of her role she focuses on play, lucky person! I am seriously envious! Is she out playing Please Mr Crocodile, Freeze Tag or What’s the time Mr Wolf? while I’m busy emailing everyone the June issue of our mental health ebulletin….? I’m going to ask Laura if we can have play breaks in our team!

Anyway, Yvonne actually takes her work with play very seriously. She looks at the importance of play to children’s health and wellbeing, and works closely with a myriad of other organisations to ensure that the children of Powys have genuine opportunities to play. She recently went to Wrexham to check out some of the amazing children’s playgrounds they have developed there… they are more like the wild dens out in the woods that I recall playing in with such freedom and enthusiasm as a child… Lucky children of Wrexham!

Yvonne is helping to organise a conference on play on 25 June in Llanelwedd at the Royal Welsh Showground, and reading about the content of the day made me think more about the importance of play to children’s emotional wellbeing.

In 2012 Play Wales produced a report outlining the relevance of play to both physical and emotional wellbeing, with recommendations for the role of public health professionals in promoting play opportunities.

How playing contributes to children’s emotional well-being:

  • Creating and encountering risky or uncertain play opportunities develops children’s resilience and adaptability – and can contribute to their confidence and self-esteem.
  • Socialising with their friends on their own terms gives children opportunities to build emotional resilience, to have fun and to relax.
  • Fantasy play allows for imagination and creativity, but it can also be a way of children making sense of and ‘working through’ difficult and distressing aspects of their lives. 

There is an increasing realisation of the importance of outdoor and what we might now think of as “risky” play…. How many parents would allow their youngsters to do as I did as a child – head off on my bike with my mates into a nearby wild woodland area with a large lake and build tree dens unsupervised? Instead young people sit in front of their electronic devices for hours on end… In the recently promoted Children’s Outdoor Charter of Rights there is a section on risk-taking which states: "Children have the right to learn from challenge, to experience failure as learning and to become confident and adventurous explorers of the environment. Safety concerns therefore need to be balanced with the child’s need to experiment and grow."

Journalist Rob Parr asked why fun is not taken more seriously in The importance of play in a recent Times Educational Supplement article. His piece outlines studies around play which “found that play-deprived children manifest responses on a scale ranging from unhappiness to aggression.” Several studies show clear links to criminality and reduced creativity, and Research Professor Peter Gray from Boston in the United States states: “what I think is the most dramatic effect of the play deficit: the increase in childhood depression and anxiety, and decrease in self-control…over the past half-century.”

And it seems play is, indeed, not just about having fun… it is a serious business, it’s about learning the skills for life, as outlined, again by Peter Gray, on Psychology Today in 2009. “A lively outdoor group game may be physical play, language play, exploratory play, constructive play, social play, and fantasy play all at once. Play, in all its forms combined, works to build us into fully functioning, effective human beings.” And children “playing strive to perform well, because performing well is an intrinsic goal of play, but they know that if they fail there will be no serious, real-world consequences, so they feel free to experiment, to take risks in ways that are crucial to learning."

So… what plans are afoot in Powys to further develop play opportunities? Powys County Council has a statutory duty to “provide sufficient play opportunities” and to promote them. There is already a Powys Play Partnership which “aims to become a wide network of organisations and agencies (from statutory and voluntary sectors) who work with the communities in Powys and have an interest in developing more child led play for more families.” The partnership developed the Powys Play Pledge in 2013.

This latest conference will look at how agencies and groups can incorporate play into their services “using simple techniques and methods which will benefit the residents and visitors of Powys”. It will also address the subject of ‘Risk in Play’ – the myths, the issues, the barriers and the solutions.

Can you contribute and make a difference to play opportunities in Powys? And what do you think about the importance of play to children and young people’s emotional wellbeing?

Wednesday 25 June Play Conference: Managing Risk Playing More

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