Let's Talk About Play
Subject: children, babies, play, early years, messy play, development, learning, education, school, Multicultural Education, online, community
We are certainly living in both challenging and changing times. The world has been turned upside down in recent months.
The strains and stresses of isolation, curbs to our freedom, and separation from our loved ones, has meant that we’ve had to learn new ways of working, and become teachers as well as parents to our children.
The damage being done to our mental health and that of our children at this time is difficult to quantify.
However, all is not doom and gloom.
Thankfully, we have also seen tremendous acts of bravery, selflessness and kindness in our communities, which has gone some way to restoring our faith in humanity.
People are saying that things will be never be the same again, and we constantly hear that we will have to get used to a new ‘normal’ (whatever ‘normal’ is!). Let’s at least hope and pray that things will be better than they were before, and that we will learn all the lessons that this experience is teaching us worldwide; personally, in our families, as communities, as governments, and for the environment.
But what about play, I hear you ask? After all, this is a blog is called ‘Let’s Talk about Play’! It has been a very difficult time for all parents and carers of young children. As much as we love our little ones (and not so little ones), many of us are not used to being at home with them for 24/7, never mind trying to entertain or educate them. And many miss the conversation and company of other adults.
Yes, technology has helped in this situation, but nothing compares to an uninterrupted cuppa and chat, in private, with a friend or colleague, or the busy adult environment of the workplace. Back in the late 80’s when I was a new, first time mum, as much as I loved my baby girl, I was desperate to get back to work and utilise my brain cells again (coupled with the guilt of leaving her with others, but that’s a whole other topic!). Of course, not everyone works, by choice or otherwise, and most of my teaching career, and my work in my business Play and Learn Café, has been with parents and carers who were: on maternity leave, stay at home parents, or a wide range of other carers including nannies, childminders and grandparents, to name a few. But there were, as now, playgroups, Childrens’ Centres, and a wealth of music, dance and activity classes to attend. And of course, coffee shops!! Social interaction with others, for us and for our children is a necessity of life.
When I retired from teaching back in 2017, it was what I saw in coffee shops around Wandsworth and Lambeth, that led me to set up my Company. It was a time of Council cuts which left lots of parents and carers with fewer places to go for play opportunities. Many ended up in coffee shops after being turned away from playgroups by ‘Sorry, we are full today!’ signs. Great for that chat and adult interaction, but what about the bored children. An idea came to mind. What if both of these groups could be satisfied in one place; the adult with a cuppa and chat, and the child with an enjoyable (and educational, although they are not aware of it) play experience. Play and Learn Café was born.
We experimented with the provision of lots of different play experiences, but the most successful, and what we now specialise in, was ‘messy’ play. The kind of play you can’t or don’t want to do in your own home, but so very valuable for babies and very young children, who learn and develop from exposure to sensory experiences. Over the years we’ve had tremendous fun with the basics such as water, sand, gloop and playdough, but have also included things like ice, jelly, foam, soil and of course food – most notably flour, cereals, fruit and vegetables.
The use of food in play has from time to time, become a topic of contention with many professionals, for a variety of reasons. Again, this is a topic we can explore another time, but the value of using food in play for children who are constantly ‘mouthing’ is immeasurable.
The mouth has many sensory receptors or ‘taste buds’, and babies learn more with their mouths than through their hands or feet. Of course, it goes without saying that what they put in their mouths need to be safe and clean - especially during a pandemic.
Anyway, Covid-19 has meant that all ‘face to face’ sessions have ceased for the foreseeable future and we are all back at home, coping as best we can. Some are able to cope better than others, depending on such things as your financial means, size and location of your home, or access to a garden.
I can only imagine what it was like for households with young, active children and no access to the outdoors. Did you know that children learn much more outdoors than they do indoors? And not just in the area of physical development. We have so much to talk about! Yet another topic.
As I write, the government has recently reneged on its plans to reopen primary schools before the summer. Schools and nurseries having been closed since 23 March to all children, other than those of key workers, has been desperately hard for everyone involved, despite all of the attempts to keep children connected and learning from home. But what of babies and children from birth to 3 years? After all, the first five years are the most important, where the foundations are laid for future success in terms of health, happiness, development and learning. In fact, in recent and ongoing research it has been highlighted just how critical the first three years of life are in terms of brain development – a fascinating topic, and how important early experiences, through play, exploration and social interaction with others, are in determining how we successfully live the rest of our lives. At Play and Learn Café, we have prided ourselves in sharing information on child development, and we have been excited to see how it has been valued. We have loved seeing some of you carry on giving your children these important sensory experiences at home, inspired by our messy play sessions. Please keep sending us your pictures to post on our social media channels, or tag us in your posts.
Yes, there are lots of online classes and activities that have sprung up. Indeed, we hope to be providing some online song and rhyme times very soon. However, many of these classes incur charges that many households are unable to prioritise over vital food and household bills.
As a Community Interest Company (not for profit), Play and Learn Café has always been committed to giving all children equal access to high quality play experiences, whether their families can afford to pay or not. We have been successful in accessing funding to run free community play sessions in the Brixton area, and were about to set up our second project as the lockdown struck. Like all early years businesses, and council-run provision, we are seeking creative ways to support families with young children. We are delighted to have been awarded funding from The National Lottery Community Fund, and LEAP (Lambeth Early Action Partnership) we are busy creating Play Bags to be distributed to local families with babies and children aged 0-36 months. These Play Bags will include a range of high quality, age and developmentally appropriate, books and toys. In partnership with local organisations and agencies, these Play Bags will be delivered to families alongside hot meals and grocery deliveries to families who need them. A project supporting young mothers who have given birth in the last few months will be amongst this group of recipients, and we have been especially concerned about the needs of new parents at this difficult time, especially those financially restricted.
Do keep an eye on our social media, as we will show you how the project is developing, and you will see the contents of the Play Bags. Plus, there will be a competition, offering a chance to win one!
We hope later, to create themed play bags, which we will make them available to the wider public for sale, to enable us to continue to provide for those who cannot afford them. We are always seeking support and donations to continue our work, so if you have any great ideas of how to support us to support others, please do get in touch.