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10 September 2022
Sharing a message of love with our kids
Words Anthony Castle
“Will you play a game with me?”
This is the message I hear, more than anything, from my son. He is in his first year of school and returns home most days and asks me to change from a 40-year-old parent to something like Batman or a Ninja Turtle. He asks me to play games more than he asks for hugs or food, but it’s not an invitation I always welcome.
Like many 40-year-old parents, I am often working, and tired when I am not. The chameleon-like change required of an adult in child-led play can be challenging. A tea towel becomes a cape, bath water a cup of tea, or a stick a conductor’s baton. We might lack imagination or feel too embarrassed to engage in play. Once we are adults, we don’t always remember how to be like children again.
Many adults don’t realise the importance of play in a child’s development, and there is a deficit of play in the lives of children today. Children use play to regulate emotion and cope with stress, but research shows that children are engaging in fewer outdoor activities and unstructured exercises. Play patterns can be rehearsals for social situations like friendships, jobs and conflict, but children are engaging more with electronic devices. There is a lack of parental awareness around how play helps children grow.
Studies have found that play grows a child’s ability to think creatively, organise and problem solve. Play is practice for life and necessary preparation for the adulthood they are approaching.
Article 31 of the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of the Child states, “Every child has the right to rest and leisure, to engage in play.” As such, play is so important to a child’s development that it isn’t just a privilege to earn with obedience or chores but an actual human right.
Play is a human right for children, how they begin the change from child to adult, but children aren’t playing enough, and they can’t always do it alone. Children need free play with the adults who love them most. They need their parents and carers to become like children.
There is a story in the Bible when Jesus is asked, “Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?” Jesus centres a child in the crowd before he answers:
“Truly, I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf is welcoming me” (Matthew chapter 18, verses 1-3).
The answer Jesus shares challenges the lack of awareness adults can sometimes have. Jesus centres the needs of a child, challenges our own constructs of adulthood and suggests there is something holy in the nature of childhood itself. How often do we centre children in our lives, in our communities? How often do we see their playfulness as sacred and welcome it? How often do we set aside our own adult lives and change to become like the children we love the most?
My son returned home from school recently with a drawing of two figures, one large and one small, in green marker. When asked that day about what he loved the most, my son drew a portrait of us playing together. For my son, the experience of play is inseparable from love. While the invitation to play is the message I hear from my son the most, I know the message he hears when I say “Yes”.
Play grows healthy people. As parents and carers, we must change to become like children so we can help children change into adults themselves. We must welcome them, for their sake and our own, remembering that their playfulness is sacred. As we do so, we share a message of love.
Anthony Castle is a writer for Salvation Army publications Australia.