Rules are designed to keep our children safe and allow our services to operate in an orderly manner. However, many who have worked in the sector for some time now have seen a shift over the years from common sense rules to stifling restrictions on both children and staff that alter the healthy development of the children we are supposed to be nurturing. Currently many of us asked to enforce rules that we intuitively know are not in the best interests of healthy child development and instead narrow our children’s opportunities.
At the 2019 Childhood Summit hosted by Nature Play Queensland, early childhood educators developed a long and passionate list of rules that they felt hampered or harmed the development of the children in their care. The list included rules like don’t climb trees, don’t run, do not play in bare feet, no play before school and many many more.
The problem with enforcing rules that limit the natural activities of children, is that the abilities of children are lessening, their fitness and general physical health is decreasing and their willingness to give things a go is waning. I visit many schools, kindergartens and childcare centres as an Occupational Therapist and commonly meet children who:
- Cannot hold themselves up when sitting
- Have never climbed a tree
- Recoil from paint or other messy play.
These examples are not children with any particular diagnosis or impairment, these are neurotypical kids whose experiences have been so curtailed that they now are unable to manage the demands of their day to day life and hence they are referred to Occupational Therapy.
Healthy Child Development
Healthy development is reliant on the development of the mind, body and spirit (Chapparo & Ranka, 1997).
In today’s society, many children (& adults) have an imbalance in their life roles which results in ill health, failure to thrive/launch and a range of mental health disorders. For example:
- or some children there is an over emphasis on academic performance at the expense of all else
- some children spend excessive amounts of time gaming (leisure) at the expense of other life roles
- there is no expectation on some children in relation to participating in jobs around the house or even their own self care.
In contrast, a healthy childhood, is when a child has the ability to imagine, plan and carry out roles in the areas of self maintenance, productivity (work/school), leisure and rest, whilst interacting with people and their environment. Engaging in a broad range of life roles and the routines and tasks associated with these roles, provides us with a sense of reality, mastery, competence and autonomy.
Adults can support healthy child development by preserving, maintaining and developing valued roles for our children, in the areas of self maintenance, productivity, leisure and rest. Providing this balance enables the body, mind and spirit to develop and thrive (Chapparo & Ranka, 1997).
To further explore the adult role in promoting healthy child development, we must consider some basic principles that we know to be true for children:
- Development occurs sequentially
- Play is an essential part of life and has a particularly unique role in childhood.
If we are able to keep these truths central to our decision making around children, then it provides a path forward for common sense decision making that promotes healthy children who develop into healthy adults.
The Pyramid of Learning by Taylor and Trott (1991) creates a visual explanation of children’s development, with a focus on the sequential nature of development. Successful acquisition of higher order skills (ie skills toward the top of the pyramid) relies on a solid foundation of lower order skills (ie skills that form the base and middle of the pyramid). Children must develop the underlying ‘infrastructure’ in order to be able to master skills higher up the pyramid, such as academic learning and behaviour.
In a school setting, this means that academic learning will be more easily achieved by a child who has developed the underlying ‘infrastructure’ at the bottom of the Pyramid of Learning. Whereas, a child who has focussed on academic learning at a young age without opportunities to develop the underlying ‘infrastructure’ will be unable to progress at the expected rate and if they do it will be at an enormous cost in terms of energy needed and stress induced.
Not only are the skills in the pyramid sequential, but they also take time and opportunity to develop. Without time and opportunities to develop skills at each level of the pyramid, children often experience slow progress, disengagement from learning and inappropriate behaviours when they are required to operate at the higher levels of the pyramid.
Provision of opportunities, time and environments for child directed, unstructured play, allows children to form a strong developmental base.
“Play is an episode of activity that is child-chosen & viewed as play by the child. Each play episode includes some or all of the following, spontaneous, non-literal, pleasurable, flexible, means-oriented, intrinsically motivated, meaningful, active and rule-governed (Sturgess, 2007).
Play where the outcome has been predetermined and directed by an adult, rather than being child-led, is an activity and is not play. Good quality, true play experiences are uninterrupted, self-determined and meaningful. There is still a valued place for adults playing with children and providing fun and playful activities that assist learning. We must however ensure that there is also significant time, place and opportunity for child directed, unstructured play, or else risk negatively impacting a child’s development.
Uninterrupted play happens when children are given the time and space to become absorbed in their play.
Child directed play empowers children to direct their own play, the process and the outcome. This is how creativity, imagination, and executive functioning skills thrive.
Often we try to manipulate and fix children in order to achieve the desired goal. However if we consider what play truly is, it gives us a more effective approach to supporting healthy child development. An approach that preserves the integrity of play whilst also achieving the required outcomes.
If we can create a set of circumstances, environment and time for children to truly play, then they will figure things out for themselves – they will use the skills they have, they will extend their limits as they assess the risk and figure out what’s okay and what’s not and they will engage with and learn from each other. Play is such a powerful, natural and innate occupation for children, that if we remain true to the principles of play, then the developmental benefits will naturally follow.
It is essential that all educators understand and advocate regarding the principles of sequential development and the role of play in the healthy development of the children. We must challenge the current state of childhood and advocate for a common sense approach to decision making related to children. I implore all educators to not only break the rules, but start making new ones, so that our children have access to experiences and opportunities that promote rather than restrict and diminish their development.
Chapparo, C., & Ranka, J. (1997). Occupational Performance Model (Australia): A description of constructs and structure. In C. Chapparo and J. Ranka (Eds.). Occupational Performance Model (Australia): Monograph 1(pp. 1-23). Occupational Performance Network: Sydney retrieved 1/05/2019 from www.occupationalperformance.com/origin
Sturgess, J. (2007). The development of a play skills self-report questionnaire (PSSRQ) for 5-10 year old children and their parents/carers (Unpublished doctoral dissertation).
Taylor and Trott, as cited in, Williams, MS., & Shellenberger, S. (1996). How does your engine run? A leader’s guide to the ALERT program for self-regulation. Albuquerque, NM: Therapy Works.
Written by Madeline Avci. Mum of 3 active boys. Occupational Therapist. Owner of Jump Up for Kids (including Jump Up Outdoors). Madeline is passionate about making the outdoors part of everyone’s day and supporting families to navigate the challenges of our modern world.