It’s a Friday afternoon and here I am at the dreaded jungle gym with my 4 year old and 18 month old. Looking around the room I see my sleep deprived face reflected in many of the other parents around the room but also note the number of parents sat alone at tables drinking coffee with their phones. And then there’s my 4 year old hopping from each foot desperately pleading for me to come play with him.

Using play therapy skills in my counselling work with children I am fully aware of the benefits of free play in children; increases the cognitive, physical, social and emotional well-being of children. Often in sessions children comment on how young they think I am and whilst I would like to believe this is my moisturiser doing an amazing job I have to reason that I think it is down to me following their free play. Something I feel as parents we are not greatly doing.

It got me thinking why as parents are we not playing with our children? The automatic answer my brain shouts out is because I’m tired!! When I examine my own life and the lives of friends and family around me it seems like another thing to squeeze into our week and feel parent guilt about if we don’t manage it.

Another factor that I feel needs some attention is the way family life and structures have changed immensely over the last 2 generations. Generally both parents now work, grandparents are working later into life and we are having fewer children resulting in their being less siblings for our children to play with, we socialise less with our neighbours and there’s an increased attention towards homework and after school activities. Where is the time for free play? Or free time for older children?

Using creativity, developing imagination, dexterity, conquering fears, making sense of things, increased confidence, leadership, resilience, co-working, sharing, negotiation, conflict resolution, decision-making skills……… all these areas can be mastered by one activity FREE PLAY.

But can’t they just play on their own and still develop all these skills I hear you ask? And the answer is yes but it’s nowhere near as effective as if you joined in too and follow their lead.

The course a child’s development takes is heavily influenced by their parents (or caregivers). When a parent joins in with their child’s lead play it provides them with an exclusive insight into seeing the world through their eyes. It is a time when a child knows they are receiving 100% of their parent’s attention. Having this insight allows parents to communicate better with their child, especially if the child is less verbal.

Many parents want to make the most of their limited time with their children and some feel that providing them with many options is the best use of that time – it isn’t. High interaction at home activities i.e. free play is an amazing option. It also costs less and is not as stressful as fulfilling the role of ‘the taxi of mum or dad’.

So the next time there’s an opportunity to sign your child up for the next craze in extra-curricular activities, just ask yourself is this the best use of this time or would it be better to enter my child’s world of imagination for the next thirty minutes?