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"Daddy, come play with me!"

Updated: Mar 12, 2019

How playing with your child promotes their success in school.


In the no-man’s land between Christmas and New Year, I found a surge of energy to pick up my thesis again and attempt to write an article for publication…it went well (ha!). Inspired by the time of year and true to my ENFP tendencies, I skipped straight to the section that was the most fun to research: Play!

Kobus and I are fascinated by the link between play and learning, hence why LEGO® Serious Play® for a day job. But that’s a topic for another day. Back to my thesis*. I investigated father’s perspectives of school readiness. Play is not considered a dimension of school readiness, but I included it in my research because of two considerations: First, dads are pro’s at it. Second, kids should play their way to and through school.

The Benefits of Play for Success in School

The advantages of play in the development of children has been well-documented. For example,

  • enhanced motor skills

  • improved academic performance

  • prosocial behaviour in the classroom

  • increased creativity

  • development of emotion understanding, emotion regulation and impulse control

  • enhanced learning readiness, learning behaviors, and problem-solving skills

With so much focus on the benefits of play for child development, it is surprising that play remains highly undervalued. Kane (2016) explored parental perspectives on preschool play and found that while parents deemed play important, they also described it as peripheral to, and less important than literacy and numeracy skills. Read that again. The ability to read and count. In pre-school. It’s as if we all agree in principle that play is important, but get worried when our three-year-old can’t count to a hundred whilst balancing on one leg and spouting psychological theories in all the colours of the rainbow on command! No wonder academic programming is replacing play in schools and contributes to such performance anxiety, counsellors and psychologists will never run out of clients. Thankfully, clever people suggested that it is vital that play be included in academic and social-development for all children. Parents are encouraged to become aware of the gravitas of play and how they can ensure their child benefits from it. “Play is the ambient part of a child’s education and is neither ‘unaffordable nor inaccessible’. It is as key as formal education and should be treated as such by society” (Make Time 2 Play, 2015: p. 10)

On dad-jokes and WWE Smackdown

So, Dads, here’s why you should keep doing what you’re doing. The rest of us are catching on to the fact that dads are good for more than bringing home the bacon. Fathers’ involvement contributes to their children’s lives in a way that other adults do not. One of my favourite empirical studies on paternal involvement shows that fathers are generally less involved than mothers in all aspects of parenting, except for physical play.

Others echoed these findings when they did an explorative study comparing fathers’ physical and toy play and links to child behaviour. They further noted how the social movement of involved fatherhood has stimulated a lot of research, highlighting how fathers contribute in a distinct way in children’s development and how their interaction is characterized by play.

Paquette (2004) theorised that the father-child activation relationship, a stimulating, playful relationship, develops through play, especially rough-and-tumble play. He proposed that this is the relationship that facilitates children’s opening to the world, which appears to help children be braver when they encounter new experiences and help them overcome obstacles, which breeds later success. This is a useful skill in new situations, such as starting school. Other studies further investigated father-child play behaviours during toddlerhood for their contribution to self-regulation skills, specifically emotion regulation and aggression. Results suggested that father-child play may be an important context for emotional regulation development in young children. Physical play along with father’s use of humour and teasing, all may contribute to the development of the child’s emotion management. Findings on the effects of father involvement, specifically on social-emotional development, are of special interest to me as our Spritely SEL work gains popularity in schools.

Notes from the fathers in my study

Traditional gender roles were still upheld, where fathers are playmates and disciplinarians. For example, one participant said,“I’m the fun dad and I’m the strict dad”. I was struck by how much dads enjoyed their children. Fathers’ role as playmate became evident when they talked about leisure activities they enjoyed with their children: where they were hesitant in their responses about school readiness, they became visibly confident and spoke freely. This seemed to be their specialty, where they comfortably embrace their role as Father. They shared about “outings to parks like the one in Greenpoint”, or local attractions like “Bugs Family Playpark”, “going to the beach”, to “Killarney to watch car races”, “playing sport”or “cycling”and “making an outing of going to the library”. At home, they enjoyed “card games”or board games like “chess”and “Scrabble”, “dominoes”, “Lego”, “puzzles”, “playing with the dog”, “jumping trampoline”, or “computer- and television-games”. Three fathers talked about watching television or movies together. Only one father mentioned entrepreneurial activities like selling cat litter and chopping wood together to sell to neighbours. Of particular interest, only one father said that they playfully wrestled and chased each other a lot – a form of play known as rough-and-tumble-play that I mentioned earlier has strongly been linked to social and emotional development.

My study supports findings in that although some fathers were not involved much in school, or in communication with teachers, they showed keen involvement with their children in other ways. Participants did not necessarily link their fun activities to preparing their children for school, but research has shown that the number of these activities are related to fathers’ involvement in school activities and important for increasing their readiness for entrance to school. Along the same way, in a study of African-American fathers’ involvement and their children’s school readiness, fathers who were more involved with educational activities at home, were also more involved with activities at school.

The crux of it

Although some fathers in my study were not actively involved in school, or in communication with teachers, they showed keen engagement with their children in other ways. Fathers seemed to undervalue their role as playmates and its contribution to the development of skills that facilitate their children’s school readiness. The research shows that fathers have a unique impact on the child’s development. As one example, how different neural pathways form when a dad reads to their child than when a mom does. Teachers and others involved with ECD might know these things, but my research showed that dads don’t. They don’t yet value their impact on their child’s development and education, because they don’t yet know they have such a unique influence.

So, dads have superpowers they might not even be aware of. We think it’s super important to spread the good gospel. Wouldn’t it be mind-blowingly fantastic if we could create a culture of involved and engaged fathers who smash gender stereotypes and outdated parental roles?! I’d love to see the South African narrative change from absent/uninvolved fathers to fathers who feel valued, are knowledgeable about their impact and engaged in their children’s education in every possible way. Together these dads could form a supportive net that could help our kids jump, leap and fly! 

*At Spritely, we have a vision to influence our community, our city, our country… and you know it, ultimately #worldpeace. We have developed a talk for dads, focused on their specific awesomeness as it relates to early child development. It is based on current research and the experiences of the brave dads who shared their stories with me. We welcome enquiries.

#Fathers #Play #School-readiness #child-development #success #social-emotional-learning #SEL #ECD #psychometric-assessments #problem-solving

*Full reference list available on request

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