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Helping Your Child Play More This Summer

Kids playing on tramploine


Having your children off during the holidays is a wonderful opportunity to help them develop social and emotional skills outside of the school environment.

School is great, but it can be restricting for our children. There is a constant demand from adults throughout the day, from getting ready for school, then being in school and then the clubs after school, and bedtime! It can be tiring for our children and leave them feeling like they have no control.

The summer holidays can be a time for them to play, explore and be creative and ultimately be in charge of their own time, which is important. However, we can often find ourselves filling their time up with activities and clubs (which of course have so many advantages too) for fear of them having nothing to do. Then when they do have downtime, we can find ourselves battling with them about how much time they are allowed to spend on technology and social media! We have all been in that situation where our child is adamant, they want to play on their Xbox or watch the TV for hours, and then complain of being bored 5 mins after being asked to turn it off! We have also all had that pang of anxiety when we hear ourselves say “no more TV” and wonder what the heck we are going to do without it! We may also be wondering whether we have the energy to play with them or do activities with them too!  We have also all experienced the meltdowns, tears, and difficult behaviour that children display when they have been on technology for too long!

So, what can we do?

Well, it is time to take some control back and realise that unfortunately, we have found ourselves in a society where we have been programmed to be ‘busy’ and feel the need to fill our time with things to keep us occupied. A society where being stressed is valued and where we are all addicted to the instant gratification of ‘doing’ all of the time. The truth Is, we could all do with a little free time to just be.

Child lying upside down on sofa

What is so wrong with technology?

Using technology has become the norm in our lives and takes many different forms. When I talk about technology I am referring to:

  • Smartphones – gaming/ social media/ scrolling and even googling
  • Television
  • Tablets
  • Gaming on consoles/ TV/ Computers
  • Computers

When children use technology, it impacts their brains and can affect their mood, social skills, concentration, emotions and behaviour, it can impact their sleep too! Most of the games/ apps children use are designed to keep their attention and keep them engaged. In fact, they send signals to the brain which light up the same reward pathways as taking drugs! So, when we say our children are addicted to their devices, they really are. This can be difficult to manage because even though the child knows they need to come off the device, their brain is telling them they need another ‘fix’ and it can be hard for them to pull away. When they are off the device, there is nothing that can replicate that constant gratification in the same way and so they crave it until they can go back on. Alongside this, the games our children play are often keeping them in a state of survival. We all have two parts of our brain that are often at work, the first one is our survival brain which responds when we feel like we are in danger, when we are scared or feel threatened. The other is our thinking, rational parts of the brain that help us manage our emotions, think and reflect and problem-solve.

Gaming controllers on the floor

Unfortunately, social media, technology and the games our children play activate their survival responses. Think about it, games are usually about winning, losing or surviving. Whether that is a fighting game, a car race or even popping balloons before they hit the floor. This tells the brain that there is danger and so the children react with their survival responses. Usually, something called fight mode, which is where they fight back and try to manage the thing that is threatening or hard. Their brain doesn’t know the difference between the game and reality, it just knows there is a threat.

So, your child is actively working from the same part of the brain as a child who is in real danger. When a child spends a long period of time using this part of their brain, the brain begins to believe there is threat and danger around them all the time. It learns to be ‘alert’ for the next threat, and it jumps into action quickly when it detects one. What we tend to see is that our children then become overly sensitive to small threats around them. Like their sister not sharing, not being able to watch the film they want or being asked to do simple things. We see our children struggling to manage their emotions, getting angry easily or struggling to listen and this is because the rational, thinking part of the brain isn’t on. The survival brain is, and unfortunately, we have let that happen. Once a child is in this state, it can be really hard for them to calm down and switch to their rational brain. Especially if they are constantly using technology!

Natural play on the other hand does the complete opposite.

Things like colouring, drawing, going outside, playing with their toys and imaginative play increases a child’s sense of wellbeing and happiness. It helps reduce stress hormones, organise their thoughts and calms the brain so that they are working from their rational thinking part. The more they have opportunities to play, the calmer and happier they will become!!!

Taking control of a child’s technology usage allows them to detox from the negative impact of it and decreases those heightened stress hormones that have built up. At first, you may have a child who has no idea what to do, they might be agitated, angry and irritable and it might seem as though they need technology to calm down, but remember, internally it is doing the opposite! After a consistent period away from technology, you will find your child is calmer, happier, and able to follow instructions! They will also rediscover how to play and use their imagination.

This summer let’s give our children the opportunity to play this summer and increase those happy hormones and their sense of wellbeing.

Here are my top tips for encouraging play this summer

adult dancing with young girl

Setting Rules

Before you start your summer, I would always suggest setting the house rules with the children. Let them know the routine for the summer as best you can and keep some consistency in the days. Let them know what time lunch and dinner time will be, what the plan is ahead of the week – who will they see, where are they going and of course, make rules about technology!

Introduce “free time” during the week when they know they are not allowed to play on any technology but instead use their imaginations and have some playtime. Make this a positive fun thing for them! You might choose to have a technology-free morning or three days of the week where there is no technology at all (even TV!) you might save gaming for a Sunday only! Children will respond much better to the rules if they know them in advance and if you stick to them!

It is so important for you to be consistent with this, otherwise, you will find your child constantly asking for technology because they think you might change your mind. Free yourself of the battle and stick to a routine so they know you mean business!

1. Let them be bored (make time to play)

Don’t be afraid not to have any plans and allow your child to be bored. That boredom will soon become productive time when they get used to it. Give them 2-3 hours a day of free time and see what they do with it. That means no technology, TV or gaming – not even looking at your phone for ideas or research!  I would recommend technology-free days where they have no technology at all, this will help the brain to calm down and reduce the stress hormones that build up every time they use technology. If this blog resonates with you, you might want to begin your summer with a detox week – no technology all week, and then you might reintroduce it but with strict boundaries and rules (see next point).

Your child might expect you to ‘fill’ that time for them at first but try to avoid doing that. You don’t need to find something for them to do, doing so will stop them from being creative and using their own imagination. Your child might not know what to do with themselves at first – that is good! Let them figure it out. You can give them opportunities to play without getting involved by making things available for them to do, which I will explain below.

2. Get them outside

I remember the days my parents would send us outside and we would go off and play for hours. We would play with sticks and stones, make up games and would feel free! Playing outside has so many benefits for your child’s wellbeing and mental health and can improve mood and behaviour. It can also develop problem-solving skills and communication skills! If you have a garden, then get those doors open and encourage your children to go and play – even if it is wet and rainy! If you don’t have a garden, try countryside walks or park days where you take some of the activities below and set up a picnic camp for the day (you might need this for yourself too!)

Note: When your children are playing, try not to get involved or direct the game, this can disrupt their natural problem solving skills and make them come to you when there is a problem – trust that they can figure it out themselves, even if it means they get a bit more messy!

Playing outside: Get prepared!

Gather some old clothes and shoes and let your children know that these are their messy play clothes (a bit like forest school if they do that!). Put them by your backdoor so they know they can go and play when they want to. They will get dirty, but that is a good thing! Just make sure they take their shoes off and go and wash up afterwards!

What will they play?

Give your child a range of things to play with outside if you can. This doesn’t have to be expensive though! A football, ball and racket, a skipping rope, their bike and roller blades (if they have some). If you have dressing-up clothes, put them outside on dry days! Here are some other, more creative ideas for you to try that don’t cost the earth!

Water painting

Get some cheap paintbrushes from B&M and some paint pots with lids. Fill the paint pots with water (or let them use the outdoor tap) they can then dip the paintbrushes in and paint on the floor/ walls with water. This is a great one for primary-aged kids on summer days!

Den building

Do you have any old towels/ blankets or duvets lying around the house? These are great for den building! Pop them in a bin bag labelled “den building kit” with some cello tape or frog tape (for painting- B&M) some pegs (B&M) and some bin bags and send them out to play! If you don’t have old towels or duvets, you can grab some £1 party table clothes from B&M instead! You’ll be surprised at what they can make!

Junk modelling

This is one of my favourites and costs nothing! Start by collecting the cardboard and plastic tubs you will be putting into the recycling bin (or raid your recycling bin!) and put it aside, (things like your cereal boxes/ ketchup bottles and kitchen roll tubes for example) and put them all in a bag for life. Grab some cello tape, frog tape or glue, some scissors (age dependent) and some felt tips and put them in the bag too. Label the bag “Junk modelling” and pop it somewhere the children can get it. Let them know this is their junk modelling kit and that they can design/ create or make things whenever they want! If it is a sunny day, spread out a blanket and let the children play outside.

Construction site

Okay, so this one takes a bit more work but is worth it if you have older primary-aged children (and even year 11-14-year-old children!) It starts by sourcing some old tires. You could try asking your local garage/ friend or use Facebook marketplace. Depending on how big your garden is you might want to get between 2-6 tires. Next, you’ll want to source some old wood (without nails!) this might be old shelving or planking. You can usually get these for free if you ask around.

Finally, you want to collect some old pipes or tubing, these can be a little harder to source but are worth it If you can. Pop them all in the garden and ask the children to make a sign that says, “Our construction site”. Tell them that they can use these items to build or create whatever they want in the garden. Remind them about being safe and looking after each other, and then see what they create! My kids built a whole ship with the items we gathered for them when we did this! The tubes can also be used for water play…

Large tub full of water balloons

Water play

I love water play! I am a huge fan of it for any age and believe it helps children calm down, organise their thoughts, problem solve, communicate, concentrate and has soothing properties that aid their mental health and wellbeing. There are loads of ways to incorporate water play into your child’s holidays.

Water balloons are a good way to encourage children to play with water, they are inexpensive and can be filled up using the outdoor tap (if you have one). This activity keeps the children busy for hours! On hot days they can have water fights with them, but you can also make a rule for them to be thrown at the floor/ trees or fences too! Remember though, the children will need to pick up the pieces of balloon on the floor before they come in so that they don’t harm any animals.

Another idea is to have a water tray outside with various water play objects. For smaller ones, you could fill this with Duplo people, barbies or dolls. You could also add flowers and leaves to it with some wooden spoons so the children can make fairy soup. For older ones, you might add shaving foam, water beads or slime! If it is outdoors, messy play can be cleaned up much more easily and is so much fun for the children.

Bath time

Getting children in the bath to play is a great way for them to have some water play! You can also do this with all primary-aged children from 3-11 years.

One of my favourite things to do is to create themed baths. You could create an alien bath with a green bath bomb and a green bath light. Or a Barbie bath with pink bubbles and a pink light! Gather some of the following and get creative:
– Bath slime
– Foamy bath soap
– Bath lights (here)
– Bath bombs in different colours (Lush ones are good!)

Top Tip

If you have children in the bath playing, use this time to get a cup of tea and read! Make sure you are nearby, and your children are safe of course, but reading shows them you are busy and encourages them to play alone whilst also being close enough to ensure they are safe.

Another fun bath is to run it without bubbles (maybe some bath salts) and let the children take in some toys. You want them to take toys that will dry easily but things like dolls, barbies, action figures, cars, trains and so on are good ones!

Lastly, try adding empty shampoo bottles and tubs with lids and let the children fill/ pour and create potions whilst they play!

Adjust these for all ages but don’t underestimate the power of a good play in the bath- whatever age you have!

Sand play

Playing with sand is another activity that is great for our children’s wellbeing and mental health and has a positive impact on behaviour!! You can get packs of play sand from Tesco, B&M or B&Q for around £5 a bag. Add two bags to a small blow-up paddling pool or a tough tray (amazon) and add some buckets and spades (B&M). This will keep your children busy for ages- even your 8-10-year-olds will want to play! I would suggest keeping the sand dry so that at the end of the day you can pour it into a bin bag to keep it fresh.

Chalk the floors

Get some chunky chalk from B&M and tell the children they can draw on the floor/ walls outside. This is such a calming activity and doesn’t leave much mess because you can wash it away afterwards. Just make sure they are wearing play clothes because chalk can rub off onto clothing.

Art and colouring

Lots of children love the opportunity to get creative! Whether that is drawing or creating. Put together an art box that the children can help themselves to over the summer whenever they want. Gather some felt tips, pencil crayons, various assorted paper, cello tape, blue tac, string, scissors, stickers, pencils and whatever else you can think of for them to use.

Top tips for a technology-free time in general
Play Music

A brilliant way to help children feel happier and calm during the holidays is to play music. Music is great for improving mood and helping everyone feel good! Get your favourite songs blasting around the house – it will make a huge difference I promise.  Allow your children to take control of the music too (without looking at the phone – otherwise it defeats the point) ask them what playlist they want and let them listen to it as they play. You could invest in a portable speaker (£30+ on Amazon) so that the children can take it outside with them.

You can also use music to calm the house down in the evening by playing relaxing music on YouTube and helping everyone wind down for bed!

Play Audiobooks

Another great idea is to play audiobooks to the children as they draw/ play. You can get lots of them on YouTube for free. This will help increase their concentration, calm their minds and give them something to focus on that helps their imagination without being fixated on a screen. You might be surprised at how many books they listen to if this becomes your routine. Try playing them in the house in the morning during breakfast, whilst the children are colouring or even as they wind down for bed. You can play them on car journeys too!

Whatever you do, be brave enough to ditch the technology and trust that your child will find things to do with their time. You might find it makes you all a lot happier!

Have a wonderful summer,

Shahana Knight


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