A confession: I love loose parts play. Making castles and towers, restaurants and cars, usually for my son’s toy dinosaurs to live in, eat in, and drive, is one of my favourite things. We have wooden triangles, bowls, balls, coins, people and bees, and we can spend hours (or what passes for hours in toddler time) building with them.
Quite often, I find myself completely absorbed in the game: how to build a sturdy dining table for the brontosaurus, or to ensure the stegosaurus has a comfortable enough wooden bed. Meanwhile, my son has wandered off and is equally lost in emptying the kitchen cupboards or feeding ice to his cuddly fighter plane.
I am not alone: in a thread on our Bringing Up Great Kids Facebook group, parents enthused about their favourite toys and why it is they love them so much.
Some contributors posted photos of huge towers they’d helped build and talked about elaborate Play-Doh models into which they’d poured huge effort and attention.
There were stories of marble runs made after the children were down for the night, Lego much loved by the parents of someone still too little to build her own, and dolls houses and Sylvanian Families treated with more respect and better styling by parents than children.
Favourites with many parents included KAPLA (wooden planks that can be used to stack or build, or for imaginative play), Duplo, Brio, and marble runs, which one mum on the group said she loves because it’s fun both to build and to play with when you have finished.
You know you’re finding a favourite in your child’s toybox when you realise it’s not just a matter of being pleased that your child likes it, but you are also engaged: you want the tower to stay up, you care about an especially ambitious train track making it all the way to the door, you realise that yes, it is possible to build a convincing London Eye from plastic bricks, none of which is the right colour.
“I have a niece and a nephew, and when I was playing with them I realised that sometimes I was having fun through them because they were enjoying it. With KAPLA I was enjoying it for myself, not just through them”– says Divya Muzumdar, Education and Marketing Manager at KAPLA International.
Muzumdar’s bookshelves at home are made from KAPLA, as was her Christmas tree, which took her five hours to build. When she made a mistake and it collapsed at 2am, she started building it all over again.
When children see us as enthusiastic about their toys as they are, it creates empathy and closeness, she says: “It’s important not just that parents welcome children into their world, but that parents enter the children’s world too. Playing together gives us a moment we can spend in our child’s environment. Being willing to enter a child’s world makes a big difference to them, and being able to get a child to explain their world and environment to you is important too.”
As I was making another towering stack of rainbow-coloured wooden coins recently, I wondered what benefits we get from picking up these toys again some 20 or 30 years after we last played with them.
Yes, we know why play is essential for our children, but in what ways is it still useful for us? Are there skills we’re learning or relearning when we lose ourselves in play? Alexis Ralphs, founder of online toy shop One Hundred Toys, believes so.
“Parents get many of the same benefits from playing with toys as their children do. Learning to shut out external stimuli, getting into a state of flow and thinking creatively are skills you can apply to any workplace,” says Ralphs, who describes himself as “having trouble seeing beyond blocks” when it comes to his favourite toys:
“the play possibilities are endless…I can get in an almost meditative state just placing the blocks down, one after the other.”
Even in professional settings that don’t obviously allow for much creativity or flexibility, there are lessons to be learned from toys where there is no right or wrong and no absolute way to play, such as blocks, planks, coins or beads.
“When you just have a single plank, it’s always something different: an animal, a tree. It’s always the same plank, but how someone visualises it is different. It’s just a single piece of wood, but when children start building, parents are always amazed at their children’s creativity” Muzumdar says.
“It teaches that there’s not just one way of thinking about something…you can be creative in your own way.”– Muzumdar
The collaboration and teamwork involved in building wooden bridges, functioning railway sets or stable block towers with our children offer lessons for the office, too. Patience, communication, persistence: all these are challenges we face in play, but also professionally.
Most jobs require a degree of collaboration, and play can really help with that. A great deal of cooperation is required for a group to build a tower from blocks or to create a small world for their figures to inhabit.
It has been argued that play is a rehearsal for adult life.
"When playing together we are obliged to consider our partners' wishes and feelings and to negotiate a plan that everyone finds acceptable. You'd hope that most adults in the workplace had mastered this but I've worked with plenty of people who could do with some practice,”– said Ralphs
Muzumdar agrees, saying that play with our children when we are fully absorbed in the game can make us better colleagues and business partners.
“It teaches social skills, it teaches cooperation, it teaches guidance without control, and those are all skills that apply in the workplace too. If you’re building a bridge with your children, for example, the bridge won’t work without their tower: without your side I don’t work, without my side you don’t work.”– Muzumdar
While some agree that toys can teach us valuable lessons for work and parenting, others are less sure.
Robin Sutcliffe, Chairman of Sutcliffe Play, says it’s more about our attitudes to play as parents that matters, rather than the toys we’re playing with.
“It doesn’t matter if it is getting into a cardboard box or pushing mud into a puddle,” he says: “For a child it is liminal, the way of opening doors, reordering recently acquired and not yet understood knowledge and experience and seeking your confirmation. Never view play as a waste of time.”