Last Tuesday as I walked into the main area in the Children’s Centre after helping in the new children’s dance workshop, I took a moment to stop and glance around at the activity going on. There was an air of energy, industry, enthusiasm and enjoyment around the room as some children worked together to build spaghetti towers, others ministered to the medical needs of various soft toys and still more created foam beards and moustaches as part of a bubble making challenge.
I was just thinking about how many children had a smile on their face when I became aware of someone standing beside me. It was Boku (not his real name) and he started tugging on my arm. He looked at me with a serious face and said ‘I really need to dress up.’ As we gathered a wig, dress and eye patch I reflected on his choice of wording. He didn’t just want to dress up, he needed to. It made me think about how important play is to the lives of children, and in particular to children living with or affected by HIV.
As manager of the Children’s Centre, I believe that providing children with the space and opportunity to build friendships and peer support networks is key to helping develop the resilience and self-esteem that they will need to help them cope with the difficulties life brings their way. The best way to do this is, in my opinion, by facilitating opportunities for them to play together.
There are many theories around the importance of play to child development, but there is now also a growing body of evidence supporting a connection between cognitive development and high-quality pretend play. It is widely understood that play allows children to develop the physical, social and emotional skills they will need in order to achieve their full potential. It allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength.
As they grow, play helps children develop new skills that lead to enhanced confidence and the resilience that they will need to face future challenges. Undirected play allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, and to learn self-advocacy skills. It is through play that children at a very early age engage and interact in the world around them. Play allows children to create and explore a world they can master, conquering their fears while practicing adult roles. In fact, play is so important to children’s development that it has been recognised by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights (Article 31) as a right of every child.
At Body & Soul we recognise that this opportunity to take control and explore stressful experiences is particularly important to the children we see. So many other aspects of their lives are unpredictable and frightening, from seeing parents or siblings struggling with ill health to undergoing numerous hospital visits of their own, that to be able to have the time and space to process these experiences in a safe and familiar environment is vital.
Being part of a family living with HIV can lead to poverty and isolation which in turn can limit the opportunities children have for play. We give children the chance to be themselves in a space where they are actively encouraged to explore their imaginations, where no one will limit them and where they are free to put their worries and concerns to one side for however short a time and just enjoy the freedom to play. Play is fundamental to children’s development but perhaps above all; play is a simple joy that is a cherished part of childhood.
Thanks to Jane for this post