“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge, it’s imagination.” Albert Einstein
Timmy comes to see me today for his play therapy session. As soon as he gets in to the playroom he gets down on his hands and knees in front of the sand tray. He runs the sand through his fingers and doesn’t speak. He moves the sand round and makes two circular patterns beside one another. I notice he visibly relaxes as he does this. After about five minutes he notices the army figures by the side of the sand tray. He begins to place them in to the sand and creates a battle scene. There is a war, between good and bad. The bad side is winning and there seems to be no hope. We play like this for 25 minutes.
He is in year 6 and he is struggling with his behaviour in school. He was referred to me because he is often aggressive and angry. He does not follow the rules and is often sent out of class.
Timmy is dealing with some difficult things at home. His mum is involved in a domestically abusive relationship. She is pregnant and is struggling to manage Timmy and his younger brother. Timmy is angry, scared and very much alone. He is often told he is bad. He believes it.
Through his time with me, Timmy was able to explore his feelings and experiences through play. Soon the goodies won the battles and the baddies disappeared. Soon he was laughing in the playroom and telling me about things he enjoys like going to the park and eating bread with chocolate spread.
By playing Timmy found a way to get through the darker parts of his life and feel good again. More importantly he was able to figure out that he wasn’t bad after all. Needless to say his behaviour changed in class and he began to engage more.
Timmy was in year 6 at primary school. When he first came to me he firmly believed that play was for babies. That’s not surprising when by the time children reach year 2, play has stopped being an important part of the school day.
Why is play so important?
Play is one of the most significant activities children can do and there are many different forms of play: imaginative, dramatic, creative, exploratory, symbolic – and all are essential for healthy development.
Through play children can gain mastery and control, express and regulate their emotions, develop social skills, take on leadership roles and develop imagination. Benefits of play include enhancing communication, organisation of feelings, increased concentration and a significant increase in intelligence. Children need to play in order to thrive.
Giving children an opportunity to play is more important today than ever before. With the arrival of computer games, social media, SmartPhones and the internet, childhood has a much shorter life-span compared to that of 50 years ago.
Playing on a device does not offer the same qualities as more traditional play. Often the value of play is in the imagination and creativity. The fact that a stick can become a sword or a baby doll can represent a new sibling. Children have a natural ability to pretend and it is this we should be encouraging. Unfortunately some children today do not get very much chance to play at all, nor be creative. It is easy to assume children get the opportunity to play, because that’s what children do. Sadly this isn’t true.
Playing in education
Acknowledging that children are having less time to play in their lives outside of school makes it more important to maintain the opportunity to play during the school day. The Foundation Stage does this really well as children have access to cars, dolls, dressing up, paints and play dough every day. Children are able to play freely both inside and outside with small structured sessions taking place to break up the day. “Learning through play” is a phrase you hear often when working in the Foundation Stage and is held close as an ethos for learning.
But what about key stage 2?
Play seems to have lost its value in the junior years of school and understandably this may be due to the focus on academic achievement and outcomes. However it is important to recognise that the benefits of play are still important during this phase of childhood. After all, it is still childhood. Children in years 3, 4, 5 and 6 still need to explore their feelings, express and regulate their emotions, take on leadership roles and develop their imagination.
In fact one might argue that these skills are even more important in junior years. A seven-year-old needs an opportunity to express the frustrations of not being able to do their maths homework. An eight-year-old needs to be able to organise internal feelings about appearance and weight – after seeing so much in the media about appearance. A year 6 child still needs to understand their feelings and experience of living in a domestically abusive home.
So why play and not talking?
Play is a child’s natural form of self-expression. It is developmentally appropriate and allows them to explore difficult emotions and experiences through symbolism and metaphor without actually having to discuss them or address them with words.
Children often do not have the language to effectively communicate how they feel. Often we expect children to be able to tell us why they have done something and self-reflect: “Jack why did you just kick Sarah on the football pitch?”
The truth is, many children do not have the emotional intelligence to be able to self-reflect and understand how their internal state has affected their behaviour. So we hear: “I don’t know miss, I just did.” Instead of: “I was really upset because Sarah shouted at me and said I was rubbish. At home my mum tells me I am rubbish all the time and it makes me angry and upset. I want to shout back at my mum but I can’t. Sarah reminded me of my mum in that moment and so I kicked her and it felt good for a moment to have control.”
While playing children are not expected to find the words to express themselves, instead they can show us through imaginative games or drawings. Talking isn’t required and somehow the qualities of play are healing, transforming and allow for change and reflection.
How to introduce play in key stage 2
It is important to remember that whenever you introduce something new to your class you need to explain it to them a few days before to prepare them. Make the rules and boundaries very clear so they know what to expect.
Sand in the shared area
Introduce a sand tray to the classroom, shared area or even during playtime. Playing with sand is relaxing and can help children to calm down and re-centre themselves. It is a sensory way to help children “self-sooth” and works particularly well with children who struggle with hyperactivity. Include a few objects such as a sieve, a small watering can and a small spade. Try to ensure the sand is soft and dry so it is fine to touch.
Allowing children to play in the sand for five minutes during the day or once during the week may have a direct impact on their ability to self-regulate and concentrate in class. Use a sand timer to ensure all children have an allotted five minutes of play time.
Be aware that the introduction of boundaries and rules are important here. Two top rules would be:
- The sand staying inside the sand tray.
- Two children maximum at a time in the sand.
It might be helpful to have coloured bands available to make it clear which children have time in the sand.
Quiet play boxes
Introduce an area for “quiet play” in your classroom. This might be on the carpet or in the corner of the room. Have two or three clear boxes available with different options for play. Three top tips would be:
- Wooden building blocks.
- An assortment of plastic animals, people and trees.
- An assortment of threading buttons/cotton reels.
It might be an idea to include this as a reward for children who have been particularly well-behaved, or who have done all of their work. It might also serve as a calm-down exercise. Allowing the children to go and sit on the carpet to do five minutes of free play will help increase concentration, a willingness to work and a calmer disposition.
Introducing play to key stage 2 could have a direct impact on the emotional wellbeing of your pupils. These activities could also have a positive impact on the way in which your classroom is run, affecting the mood, disposition and academic outcomes of the children .
- Shahana Knight is a qualified play therapist and director at TPC Therapy, a specialist therapeutic intervention service supporting children and schools with behaviour, emotional wellbeing and mental health. Email firstname.lastname@example.org and visit www.tpctherapy.co.uk