Polly Crowther, Co-Founder, Early Insights, ELE, East London Research School, UK
What parents do at home makes a huge difference to children’s progress (EEF, 2021). We know that play is a powerful way for young children to learn, and we know that sometimes parents find play difficult (Gutman and Feinstein, 2008). Research into the barriers to play can help Early Years educators to identify ways in which to lower them. The Early Insights global community (https://earlyinsights.org) has used this to identify practical innovations with a sound research basis.
Why should parents play?
Play is critical for early child development. It has particular benefits for the development of executive functions, so rapid at this stage of life (Zosh et al., 2017). It forms part of sensitive, responsive caregiver relationships that help young children to flourish (Jeong et al., 2021). Some studies connect parental play with progress and executive function (Skene et al., 2022; Ramchandani et al., 2020), but more research into the specific connection between parental play and outcomes would be helpful. There is evidence that parental attitudes to play impact on children’s patterns of play. This is, in turn, important for child development (Whitebread et al., 2012).
Early Years practitioners who understand the importance of parents and play want to help. The gap between the value of play and its understanding motivated UNICEF (2018) to advocate for more help for parents to understand play. We should be transparent about the limitations of the research and respectful of conflicting priorities for parents. The Royal Foundation’s report (2020) showed that access to information and the goal of wanting to do the right thing challenged parents. We must articulate the benefits of play in a way that meets parents and families where they are. We should support them to understand, practise and enjoy the experience of playing with their young children.
Why might parents not play?
Many adults in the UK would include play in any image of a happy, healthy childhood. Parents want health, happiness and developmental progress for their children, so many expect and want children to play. Parents’ roles in play are a little more tricky to understand and practise. Play is usually seen as the remit of children.
Save the Children researched (2019) what influences parents’ involvement in early learning. They identified key barriers:
Many parents do not know the connection of play to child development. They do not know the role that they can play in children’s play. Instinctive play or the songs, rhymes and stories that parents grew up with might seem perfectly natural to parents. These help to embed the ‘serve and return’ interactions that are key to early development. Parents may or may not know the impact that they are having in this play.
In lockdowns, practitioners were aware of children’s access (or lack of) to play resources. Concern for the space and equipment for play drove national campaigns for a ‘summer of play’ (Save the Children, nd). Outdoor spaces and natural environments enable risky play, which supports executive functions. Limited access to toys and resources that support physical, emotional and cognitive development can also be a barrier. Households with environmental barriers to play and a lack of emotional and physical space can also be harder to play in (Oloye, 2020).
Time is a particular barrier for parents in accessing play because play takes time. Its iterative, joyful nature allows children to immerse themselves, but it can take time for adults to attune themselves to their children’s activities. It is also a barrier in the context of the prioritisation of tasks and activities in the household. It is easy for parents to see reading, say, as more important, or to need to prioritise feeding and bathing children over time to play. Parenting young children is extremely difficult, often exhausting and a tremendous learning curve. Learning to play can be a victim of this complexity.
What supports parents to play?
There is relatively little evidence for what helps parents to engage in children’s early learning (EEF, 2021). Knowing the barriers to play is powerful, though. It allows us to acknowledge and understand parents’ circumstances and to lower the barriers as much as possible. The Early Insights global community has highlighted examples of innovative approaches. Practitioners in their settings highlighted specific inspiration to develop support that works.
One of our content leads, Alex, pointed me in the direction of EasyPeasy. In 2019, the EEF found that EasyPeasy had promise for engaging parents in play through an app that shares play activities. These activities can be integrated into daily activities, like eating, brushing teeth and getting dressed; it simultaneously tackles the barriers of time and knowledge. Since its evaluation, EasyPeasy has adapted to include opportunities for settings and parents to create and share their own content. With its rigorous evidence base, EasyPeasy brings high-quality knowledge directly to parents. Focused especially on interactions, it also shows promise for supporting executive function development (EEF, 2019).
Vroom (an app) uses a similar philosophy of evidence-informed approaches to interactions and play. Vroom’s ‘tips’ explicitly link early child development to activities. It is a neat and immediate way of addressing the knowledge gap. It tackles time barriers by including playful interactions in daily activities too, helping parents to see how points in the day that can be stressful with small children can be turned into playful learning moments (with a bit of energy and luck!). Farah Mhanna, who leads Early Insights’ Cross-Borders Leadership fellowship, had experience working with the app in contexts with severe barriers. Vroom reached displaced communities in Lebanon through the International Rescue Committee (IRC). Farah showed me how Vroom adapted to the specific needs of the community, and how they learned the value of tailoring content to the audience (IRC, 2017).
To address the barriers of practical resources, Evie Keough founded Boromi. Boromi works with schools and settings to provide play libraries for families. The boxes of resources provide guidance and ideas on playful activities. During lockdowns, Boromi offered Keepmi boxes – letterbox-sized packages with simple play equipment and instructions. They also shared daily play emails using household objects to support play. Boromi’s own evaluation (2018) identified a positive benefit in parents’ engagement in play and increased dialogue between settings and families.
How can we improve the ways in which we support play at home?
These approaches directly address barriers to parents’ play at home and have been effective in a variety of contexts. They are adaptable to different contexts while retaining the ‘active ingredients’ of the intervention. This is critical when considering what would work in our own settings and schools. Early educators can consider the underpinning principles behind innovations and interventions when developing our own support for parents to play at home:
- Improve parents’ understanding of play and early child development
- Lower the barriers to play that exist in your community to have the greatest impact
- Provide Progressively introducing students to new concepts to suppor... for parents to practise play, with examples, videos or instructions
- Intelligent adaptation of interventions should be based on the specific context, while focusing on its ‘active ingredients’.
On the one hand, supporting play at home seems like it should be simple: play is fun and developmentally beneficial and it supports strong caregiver relationships. On the other hand, it is time-consuming, complex and sometimes resource-intensive. Identifying ways in which we can make what we know about play and child development easy to understand and apply, ideally in whatever windows of time that parents can make, can go a long way.