25th October 2022 Early Years Foundation Stage All Posts

The Power Of Play – Ben Kingston-Hughes

If you follow us on Instagram you might know that we attended the Childcare and Education Expo in Coventry at the end of September. A few fun-filled days where our team got to spend the night at Coventry Football Stadium and spend our days mingling with thought leaders in the sector as well as meeting all of you lovely early years educators.

I’m Imogen, the Social Media Executive here at Connect and during my visit I attended Ben Kingston-Hughes’ seminar: The Power of Play. And today, I am rounding up everything I learned on the day.

Ben Kingston-Hughes is the founder of Inspired Child and a play specialist, and has worked with children for over 30 years. As he described himself, he is not a ‘budget Alistair Bryce-Clegg’ despite the two covering the same topic at seminar (you can find our breakdown of Alistair’s here). 

So, what is a play specialist?

Inspired Child is a company that specialises in using play to help children from all walks of life, including those who have been through bereavement and trauma, helping them to feel comfortable in play and giving them the chance to express themselves in a trusting environment.

There will always be a need for play specialists within our society. Early childhood development is key to shaping a child into who they will become and when working with the most vulnerable children, play seems to be the master key to unlocking their potential. Watching children play is when we really get to observe magic happening before our eyes.

 💡 Play Idea – Superhero Play

Gather some old duvets and masks and run around in the sunshine with children. Even the simplest of play can make all the difference to a child, especially a vulnerable child, and will give them a sense of control and comfort in an otherwise scary and intimidating world.

The Importance of Play 

Ben explained that play is a crucial part of early years education and sadly it is something that is often overlooked in its importance. Play not only stimulates a child’s imagination and cognitive thinking but it can improve their speech and language, social skills, and confidence. 

The power of play for children is the ability to let their hair down, run around, and build those innate skills that have been ingrained in humans since the stone age. But more on the science later…

An Unusual Introduction 

One of the unique, and ever so slightly uncomfortable parts of the seminar was when Ben asked us to pair up with the person next to us and start taking turns to count to 3. Ben himself admitted that he has ADHD, and I do too, which made this exercise feel slightly less intimidating than it would in a normal setting. As the exercise progressed, we had to incorporate claps, leg slaps, and ‘HOORAY’ into the routine and this was a fabulous way to break the ice and make everyone in the room laugh together and relax. Now THAT’S the power of play

The Science Behind Play 

Our brains are like computers and only have a limited processing power, when a child has to perform many actions at once you can clearly see electromagnetic energy flowing across your brain. The idea of processing maths whilst moving your hands, as we did in the exercise, uses a lot of processing power. In a child, this actually encourages their brain to physically grow bigger.

Play is food for the brain, and is the best way to GROW a child’s brain during those early years.

Experiential brain growth describes how our childhood experiences impact on the growth of our brains. For children who have been abused or neglected, their brain doesn’t develop the same as other children, which is why they need support in learning to play. 

Play builds the infrastructure of the brain. Active learning where children have the freedom to move and engage with learning is proven to be much more effective than sitting down in a classroom. Maths and Literacy are important skills and play builds the neurological infrastructure for these but children don’t need to sit down to learn these skills. 

Innate behaviours in humans

The human upper brain is a magnificent thing, it is self aware and is what sets us apart from other animals. Beneath our upper brain though, we have the same structure of brain as any other animal whether it be a chimpanzee or a snake. We have some innate behaviours within our primitive brain that tell us when we are hungry, when we should run from danger, or when we should hunt. 

A baby is born with the behavioural instinct to know when they are hungry or in danger, however they lack the physical ability to act on these instincts themselves. This is why adults have a nurturing instinct to protect a baby who cannot fend for itself. As a baby grows, it will begin to learn how to walk – but why? Crawling is not an effective way to move away from danger, and therefore a child’s instinct will kick in at a certain age and teach them how to walk to better fend for themselves. As we progress from this, a child will eventually learn how to run because this is the most effective way to get away from a threat. 

How can we encourage this growth in a baby? The best way to do this is allow tummy time. Tummy time allows a baby to move around in their own way and fires up the brain’s instinctive behaviour, which will in turn encourage them to learn how to walk and run. 

Understanding Play Time

Sadly, in many schools and settings playtime is 45 minutes, and consists mostly of adults telling children what not to do. This is a huge restriction on their limbic system and it can seriously impact their ability to build those key skills brought about through play. One of the key things adults need to consider is how they approach playtime in a childcare setting and how they act towards children during this time. Restricting children during playtime is like making them do a complex equation without a calculator. Play time should be seen as important as a lesson in the same way as Maths or English. 

Instead of observing play, try getting involved in play with younger children such as sitting on the floor with babies and toddlers and allowing them to play freely. This will release a neurotransmitter called oxytocin which promotes bonding. During play, children produce some key biochemicals such as oxytocin, benzodiazepine, GABA, opioids, in fact, children may even forget to eat during play because play offers some amazing effects for the brain that temporarily override the need for food. Oxytocin is needed for children who have been neglected to form social bonds. Benzodiazepine is a prescription grade anti-anxiety medication that as adults we can get from the pharmacy, but this chemical is freely produced in a child’s brain while they play. For any nervous or vulnerable child, play can literally change their mood. 

Taking play away from a child is like starving them. When schools take away play time from a child, it is the same biochemically as taking away their lunch. In Florida, and in 6 other states, it is illegal to take away the play time of a child, and Ben believes this is something that needs to be brought to the UK. 

Curiosity in Play

Curiosity is an innate instinct, and it will force a child to touch things and explore things to gain sensory feedback which floods the brain with benzodiazepine. Every child craves curiosity and learning through play, and this is something that we should encourage as childcare professionals. 

Stress and Its Impact on Play

BDNF, or Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor, is a chemical that encourages growth in the brain, and during play this chemical is produced in abundance. To study the importance of this chemical, scientists injected cortisol, a stress hormone, into rats and this lowered BDNF levels. This proves that scared, stressed, or anxious children will have their brains grow at a slower rate – which highlights the importance of creating a comfortable, fun, and enabling environment for children. 

Play, nurturing, and curiosity is the foundation of childhood development. It is essential to our pedagogy and everything we do should first consider these three things.

Ben’s Book

‘A Very Unusual Journey into Play’ is a book that explores the Power of Play and how you can use play in your child’s neurological development. He uses theory and practical examples to make a compelling case for utilising play in the early years.

Provide your staff with more time to empower children’s play by using iConnect in your setting. Book a demo today and get £700 off your software using the code ‘CC700’! To stay up to date with all the latest childcare sector news, sign up for our newsletter or follow us on our social media channels.

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About the Author

Imogen is our Content and Social Media creative