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“You Can Never Be Too Playful; Play Is The Best Form Of Communication Between Adults And Children.”

Do you struggle to have fun with the children in your care? Here's some advice on letting go of your inhibitions…

Sarah Ockwell-Smith
by Sarah Ockwell-Smith

How playful are you? To some adults, play comes naturally. These ‘big kids’ always know how to connect with children, how to make them laugh. They have an easy manner and no self-consciousness. They enjoy having fun and don’t care who knows it.

Others, however, find it harder. They struggle to let go of their adult lives and worries, or are self-conscious and feel awkward and silly. They may have forgotten the wonder of the world as seen through the eyes of a child, or perhaps their own childhood wasn’t particularly fun and so play does not come naturally.

One thing is for certain: working with babies and young children requires a good sense of fun and playfulness. In this largely female-dominated industry it is interesting to consider the generalisation that men tend to be more playful than women, certainly when it comes to being around children.

I’m not one for gender stereotypes, but in my experience this generalisation is true. When I work with parents I tend to find that far more fathers enjoy rough-housing than mothers. It’s often the dads who are keen to have a play fight, a tickle war or pretend to be an animal with the child riding on their back. I work with many mums who say, “I wish I could be more like him; I wish I could be better at play.”

This is an interesting point to consider when thinking about early years practitioners: are they playful enough? I don’t think you can ever be too playful. Play is the best form of communication between adults and children. It can help to diffuse situations that might otherwise result in tantrums or violence; it can help to bond a child and caregiver, and help children to feel secure in the absence of their parent(s). As such, some may need to work at their play skills.

Enjoy yourself

Playfulness and confidence often come hand in hand. Our self-esteem plays a huge role in how we move our bodies and use our voices. Those who have low body esteem may find it harder to be playful, particularly if they do not take much joy out of moving their body.

The pressures of everyday life can often take the fun out of our days. How can we have fun when we are worried about paying the mortgage, putting food on the table, fixing the car and caring for an elderly relative?

The answer is to live in the moment. Focus on the feelings of happiness when you sing and dance with children, or the joy of building a den, pretending to be a farm animal or dressing up in silly hats. Let go of your concerns, whatever they may be about, and focus instead on the enjoyment that you are giving to the children in your care, and to yourself too.

Play is also a great way for adults to learn to be less competitive and more patient. A child in the middle of an imaginary game has no concern for how another child is developing, or that tidy-up time is soon approaching. He is focused solely on the experiences of the moment. This trait is one that most adults lack, and yet one that has the potential to be life-changing, whatever age you are.

Taking time to observe children at play can be a humbling and insightful experience. Notice how curious they are about things you take for granted, and how they involve their whole bodies in their play. Notice how they are not afraid to show their joy through their voices, whether they are in a situation where it’s deemed acceptable to be noisy or not.

They have no care for social norms or ‘shoulds’; they care only about the fun and discovery.

If you don’t have your own children at home, you can learn much about play through pets. Animals are rather like young children: they love to play and don’t care who is watching them or how they look (think of a dog chasing its tail or a cat playing with a piece of string).

Getting down to ground level and joining in is key. Never be afraid to roll around on the floor and always make sure your clothes allow it!

Get active

Taking up a sport, drama, singing or dancing can aid your play skills. The more you move your body and express yourself through your movement or your voice, the more you will open up in other areas of your life.

Put on the radio and dance and sing loudly along with the music. You might feel self-conscious at first, but it’s amazing how quickly the happy hormones kick in and you feel a weight lift and yourself smile.

Immerse yourself in things that make you laugh. Watch comedy shows on TV (like this, this and this), view silly YouTube videos, go to local comedy nights, pull faces at yourself in a mirror or even attend a laughter workshop. The more you laugh the more you will increase your happiness and your ability to have fun.

Similarly, add some spontaneity to your life, go for a walk with no destination, call a friend, take an impromptu day out to the beach. The more out of your comfort zone the activity, the better. This is all about breaking the invisible barriers you have built for yourself.

Lastly, make sure that you have enough time for yourself outside of work to do the things you really enjoy. If you are more rested and playful at home, you will find it much easier to be playful at work. Above all, though, don’t forget to have fun – as a childcare worker you have potentially one of the most fun jobs in the world. Enjoy it!

Find the fun!

Seven steps to becoming more playful…

• Reconnect with your inner child. Remember what you used to enjoy and what made you laugh when you were young. • Find a role model. Spend time watching a colleague, friend or family member who is naturally playful; what can you learn from them? • Be spontaneous. If you’re normally a planner, try being spontaneous and doing something you wouldn’t ordinarily do on the spur of the moment. • Get confident. It’s harder to be playful if you’re conscious of what people think of you all the time. Focus on the fun, not what others may think. • Get down on the floor and move more. Play with your whole body, not just your hands and your mind. • Learn from the children in your care. Let them lead and invite you into their play. Mimic their expressions and movements, and try to immerse yourself in their world. • Be mindful. Live in the moment. Try to forget any anxiety over your everyday life; focus on the here and now, having fun and enjoying the company of the children in your care.

Sarah Ockwell-Smith is a parenting expert, author and mother of four.

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