The Importance of Play with Sally Thomas

19th December 2018

When N Family Club released their Autumn timetable of events earlier this month, I instantly signed up to their talk on the importance of play (not least for the promise of free coffee, pastries and an excuse to leave the house for a few hours of brain training). I did no research on the speaker, Sally Thomas, assuming she’d be as Instagrammy as the setting she was speaking in and rocked up to a pleasant surprise: a smiley, grandmotherly figure who instilled me with a strange combination of eagerness and inner calm.

She came armed with a plethora of early years knowledge from (I’m guessing) around 50 years of experience, starting in Laos, where she had her first child. She told us that parents in Laos are just as imperfect as they are in the UK, and in West Africa, where she spent many years too, adopting two children to add to her three. I found comfort in knowing it’s a global thing and not just the Western pressures and drive for “having it all” that makes the early years so tough.

But when it came to play, that’s where she really came into her own. And that’s what I’m going to recap for you today. I should probably preface this with the fact that our parenting style if FAR from perfect and these tips are something we’ll be working hard on over the coming months, and years, no doubt.

Put your phone away

This one’s obvious. We all know it. We all TRY to do it. But ultimately it’s a problem for our generation of parents. We can’t play with our babies or children (or friends or partner for that matter) when we have a phone in our hand. So let’s commit to using “Do Not Disturb” or switching to Aeroplane Mode, then putting our phone in a drawer or box for the hours we share with our little ones. Whatsapp can wait. People can leave a voicemail.

Teach them to improvise

Teaching a child that they can fashion a doll’s bed out of a shoebox is an important lesson in creativity, mathematics and life skills. A paper napkin can be a sheet, a blanket can make a den and a box can be just about anything you want it to be with a bit of imagination. Helping them discover this awesome way to play should be fun for you too. Talk them through your thought process and ask for their input “what do we have in the house that we could use as a cape? I know, Mummy’s skirt” then fashion a superhero costume with them, finding all the bits you need around the house. Negates the need for expensive toys most of the time too.

Work with their obsessions

This was a question Sally answered amazingly well for me. Our three-year-old, Arlo, has a serious obsession with cars. He ignores 90% of the toys he owns, opting for cars every time and has absolutely zero attention when it comes to building towers, sorting shapes, even painting. So what on earth do you do in this case? Sally recommends taking the cars outside and adding some pretend play to the mix, “This car’s looking a bit dirty, shall we give it a wash?” then bringing a washing up bowl outside to wash the cars. Perhaps then add something bigger that isn’t a car? Or make a shoot out of a bit of guttering and drive the cars down, before sending balls or little Duplo characters down instead? All this works with their favourite things before adding a new idea and learning different ways to play.

Never say “share” (until they’re five)

A lot of us are hung up on our kids not sharing but it goes against all instinct. Babies and toddlers are egocentric. They have to be for survival. Sharing is a skill of negotiation they won’t learn until they’re at school and can understand the simple rules of give and take. In the meantime, Sally recommends modelling it at home by showing your little people how adults share treats and jobs around the house .

Take everyday baby steps

They’re called baby steps for a reason. If you tell your child they’re going to the shop (which they love) then ask them to put their shoes on, go to the toilet, find their coat, etc, it’s no wonder they’re throwing a tantrum before you leave the house. Start at the beginning and ask them to put their shoes on because you’re “getting ready to go to the shop” and the process should run a lot smoother. Incidentally, don’t tell them the shop will be fun. They’re idea of fun will probably change every day.

Don’t ask them to do something you want them to do

I find this one particularly hard, “do you need the toilet?”, “are you tired”, “can you eat some more please?” I catch myself doing it all the time. But if we reframe the question to a more directive “let’s go to the toilet”, “let’s have a quiet lie down”, “eat a few more mouthfuls please”, then they can’t answer back with the inevitable “NO”.

On the subject of no…

Try to say it less. And yes more. But not in the spoilt, yes you can have anything you want way. Use it to your advantage. “Yes I’ll play cars with you but first let’s tidy up your other toys”. “Yes you can go to the soft play but that means we won’t go to the playground today.” “Daddy’s putting you to bed tonight but Mummy will kiss you when she gets back from work”.

Treasure baskets are great toys

Whatever age your child is, creating treasure baskets can entertain them for hours. Babies are particularly fond of them as they explore different shapes and textures (their fingertips have no sensitivity until 8-9 months, when they outgrow the reflex of discovering everything with their mouth). It’s important they’re exposed to all kinds of materials and real-world objects before this age (not just plastic) as it gives them a basic understanding of reality. Plastic never changes shape, texture or temperature, whereas a paintbrush, feather, set of keys or wooden spoon will help them learn what’s what much quicker. Incidentally, old watches, string, tupperware and cotton wool are great toys for toddlers.

It’s only 60 months

This one really got me. Your child is only under five for 60 months. It’s both sad and comforting in equal measure knowing that however hard it is right now, this too shall pass. The toddler years are particularly demanding on us and often the most rewarding too but it’s okay to not get everything right all the time.

These tips will hopefully make it easier though, for them, for you and for your mental health. I know it’s not quite the same reading a blog post but I left that talk with a renewed sense of energy for managing my two boys and I hope I’ve gone some way to imparting what I learnt.

Now go forth and parent, however the hell you like.


Words by Anna Whitaker

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