Play Away, Assessing families for their Capacity For Fun.

Do read my article in this months Professional Social Worker.

Play away

Social workers should be assessing families and carers for their capacity to have fun, says Yoni Ejo

Yoni Ejo, is an Adoption Coach, Trainer, Registered Social Worker Manager, Adopter, and Adoptee.

As child care social workers, we underestimate the importance of play. I’ve been a social worker for 30 years and in that career, I don’t recall many times when I spoke about play.

I had no understanding of play’s importance until I looked into it how critical it was for children’s development, learning, social skills and confidence. Play can incorporate many things: traditional nursery rhymes, and ball games we all recognise, but also consider sports, a walk in the park, even meditation as types of play.

Now I am working with Keeley Craw, a play therapist, I’m starting to really see the fundamental role of play within families, the building of attachment, and bonding for foster carer and adopter families. I believe as child care workers, we really don’t consider leisure activities sufficiently. Part of our role in nurturing confident adults is making sure all children have time when they can relax, play and socialise. This is something we should be evaluating when assessing birth families regarding child protection, as well as in the capacity of alternative foster or adoptive families for children.

“Recent studies using a range of new research techniques, including neuroscientific and other physiological measures, have shown strong and consistent relationships between children’s playfulness and their cognitive and emotional development”.
(Dr Whitebread 2014)

I am the practice manager in a leaving care team, and when I started working with care leavers, it became obvious to me that many of our young people lacked the ability to relax, play or have sufficient social skills and understanding to build positive relationships. Many of our care leaving young people struggle to care for themselves or to have positive and fun experiences, without using alcohol or drugs.

Young people leaving care for the first time often struggle to develop positive social relationships and to correctly recognise the motives of others. This leaves them vulnerable to exploitation or grooming, particularly when they live in their own property.

It is in part a consequence of a lack of play as children, teenagers, and young adults. This left these young people missing out when their carers don’t make a priority of the learning, communication, negotiating, and relationships skills often developed through play.

When children learn how to play, they learn a range of critical skills. And this knowledge includes learning how to negotiate, how to take turns, how to communicate their wishes, feelings, understanding other people’s points of view and empathy.

Play can also help children learn physical, intellectual, and reasoning skills. Play is not considered and underestimated within social care, and yet play research professionals understand that it is critical.

Despite its importance, I can’t personally recall play being considered in detail during my many years within social care. When completing any assessment, parenting skills evaluation, or fostering and adoption assessment, I was never asked to review the potential for children’s opportunity to play. And I think this becomes a real gap in our knowledge about the family. When undertaking child protection, fostering, and adoption assessors we need a greater understanding of the child’s lived experience. Families develop history, customs, and traditions around play. As adults and professionals, when assessing we are in danger of reconstructing and replicating our own experiences, instead of analysing the family if our own experiences are unacknowledged.
PIn addition, parent’s understanding of and the priority they put on of play is handed down to their children through their own family experience adults individual family experience, as well as having some levels of cultural impact on the consideration of the importance of playing.

Adults can often underestimate the of importance in learning. There is evidence to indicate the critical nature of play. EvidenceThere is evidence that the absence of play in a child’s life can have an enormously detrimental impact on their development, learning, and their social education.

However carers achieve it, I believe it is crucial that they generate a playful and fun family atmosphere, as far as possible especially when children themselves are unused to playing in their birth families. Playing will give children the chance to building strategies to self- regulate, (emotional self-regulation refers to the child or adults ability to manage disruptive emotions and impulses), confidence and resilience.

Play and Crime Research
The absence of the opportunity to play can have significant ramifications on the child’s development. Play provides children crucial tools to reduce and manage their incidents of dysregulation.

Children who are deprived of outdoor play experiences demonstrate aggressive
behaviours, depression, antisocial skills, and are at risk for becoming obese
(Huttenmoser et al, 1995).

A term for a lack of play was coined by Stuart Brown – “Play Deprivation”. Brown is a psychiatrist and the founder of the Institute for Play in Carmel Valley, California. He believes that too little play has dire consequences and can lead to feelings of hostility, depression, aggression, and the loss of “the things that make us human beings.“

Brown advised from his decades of interviewing individuals about their early play history, that all the mass murderers seemed to have a common theme of a major play depravation, and in addition experienced feelings of powerlessness, shame, had expertise with weapons, and a deep sense of vengeance.

Brown shows us that the consequences of play deprivation can be devastating, in addition, we know that children who are the subject of child protection investigations or in care are especially vulnerable to the impact and occurrence of trauma.

So many will already have issues self-regulating. Any lack of access to play will make it much more challenging to regulate their emotions, as many skills are learnt through play.

So what can we do as social workers to reinforce and harness the importance of play in child development?

Evaluate Carers.
Professionals should evaluate adult carers, whether birth family or prospective alternative family members, and their ability to motivate their child’s play. What are their own abilities to play, and does their child express an interest in playing?. Is it a fun, playful family? Do they arrange social time together? Are parents able to spend down time, with their children? Wwhat activities do the children take part in? What interests do the family have? What interests will they do together? Are they willing or able to develop new skills together as a family? What’s the child’s experience of play? Are children in the family confident in negotiating with friends? Do they have friends? Are they able to build sustained relationships with peers? And do they have any neurological diversities? How does this impact their social skills and what can be put in place as support to compensate?

Be Conscious of the Family and Cultural Cultural Impact
The Parenting or carer assessment should review opportunities given for communication, development, and any cultural assumptions or limitations on play. Are the parents open to children playing? Or perhaps in some families and cultures playing has been a luxury that the family feel they can’t afford.afford? Perhaps children work, have caring commitments, or there is such an emphasis on education, it excludes opportunities for play.

What play and social opportunities do the family provide? Are they structured or unstructured? Do children have sufficient unstructured child-led play? Does the family build into their week, a time when the child can direct what the parent and / or family do together? Or is every waking minute filled with structured activity time, such as music lessons, sports events, and homework?

Weekends and holidays
How are weekends utilised? Do they provide family time, time out of the house in parks, activities, and time within nature? We know that being outside can have healing and self- regulating properties and is really important for growing and developing children.

I’ve never previously asked these questions of people I’ve assessed but I now see how important it is to have the answers because this will impact the child’s future lived experience, whether they are remaining with family or being placed with a new family.

I will definitely be asking these questions in all future assessments I undertake, and I really hope that you consider doing so too. Then, use their answers to create a road map for parents to increase and encourage regular play, both for the child alone as well as the parent and child.

Yoni Ejo, is an Adoption cCoach, Trainer, Registered Social Worker Manager, Adopteer, and Adoptee. Together with Keeley Craw Play Therapist, she had developed Relationship Based Play,

Yoni Ejo and Keeley Craw Play Therapist, have developed Relationship Based Play ©, a course for Adopters and Foster Carers to increase their child’s attachment, regulation and communication skills.

I was thrilled with the feedback from the Relationship-based play course, which teaches adopters techniques to generate child led play building attachment and confidence in their adopted children. Carers said:

“I have already started (to put it into practice). The children love it….I was told last night
by my youngest that I am a fun mummy which meant a lot as we have to do a lot of hard
things together, (therapy et al).

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