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  • Writer's pictureAideen McCartney

The other 5-a-Day that every parent should know

It’s a new year, a new decade! And with it I’ve been thinking a lot about what I would like to focus my thoughts, writing and support on in the next 12 months. Following on from last year’s ‘year of less’ (simplifying) I‘ve decided to stick to the heart of the Playful Pathways ethos and focus on PLAY!

As a play therapist it probably comes as no surprise to anyone that I think a lot about play; how children play, the benefits of play and the state of children’s play opportunities. It’s something I talk to parents and teachers about regularly and do my best to keep on top of current research in the field.

One element of these discussions that seems to arise more than any other these days, is questions about screen time. Parents want to know how much is healthy, how much is too much, are there any benefits and what are the long-term impacts of screen time on child development?

And my answer to these questions is usually, unfortunately, I don’t know! Because the reality is that no one knows with any certainty what the impact of screen time is on development, or how much is good/bad for children (or any of us, really!). Screens as we now know them (in our pockets, vehicles, bedrooms and basically anywhere and everywhere) have only been around for the past 10 years, and that simply isn’t enough time for any thorough long-term research to have been conducted and reach any conclusions.

I understand why parents and educators are asking these questions - because we’re in uncharted territory. Screens and technology have fundamentally changed the way that some families live their lives and how many children receive their education and socialise. I hear lots of anecdotes from parents about these changes - some report great benefits, others are deeply concerned. And if you live in a modern culture civilization, you probably can’t escape screens, so everyone wants to know what the best way to handle them is.

And I get that. But frankly, I think we’re all focusing on the wrong thing!

Because, while there isn’t much research out there about whether or not screens are good for children, there is plenty of excellent, long-term, evidence based research about what things ARE good for children. Beyond the obvious things like a safe home, loving and attentive caregivers and good nutrition, this also includes the opportunity for children to engage in a variety of real-life play activities and scenarios. Activities that stimulate their minds, bodies, imaginations and interpersonal skills.

Play is not just useful or fun for children, it is absolutely essential. So essential in fact that the right to play is enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. So this is why just talking about what or how much children are playing with screens feels like the wrong way to approach this conversation. It’s like discussing healthy eating for children by only talking about how many sweets they have and totally ignoring the things that should form the basis of their diet, so they can get their nutritional needs met.

In fact, talking about screen time in this way, as equivalent to sweets or crisps in your child's diet, has become the most useful way I've found to refocus the conversation with parents and teachers. Not knowing how good or bad screens are in the long term, my advice is that I think they’re best consumed in smaller quantities, at appropriate times with appropriate limits, alongside making sure that your child is having their real-life play needs met.

And these really are needs. We might like to think of ourselves as a highly evolved and technologically savvy species, but the reality is that we have evolved over millennia in environments that require us to use our bodies and interact with and collaborate with others. We are social animals. We are not designed to sit, largely motionless, by ourselves, especially not in our early years of life when our brains are undergoing their most intense and rapid periods of development. Optimal development and neural integration in your child’s brain (which forms the foundation of their lifelong mental and emotional wellbeing) requires them to move, explore, experiment, get messy, take risks, invent, solve problems, pretend, imitate, co-operate, empathise, and most of all - interact with others.

So how can we make sure that children are having these needs met?

Well, continuing to take inspiration from the field of nutrition, I've adapted the well known 5-a-day campaign for healthy eating and come up with my own campaign

The 5-a-Day of PLAY!

I first wrote about my 5-a-Day in this blog post about surviving the summer holidays. But I decided that I wanted to write about it again and explain it more, because how much and what children are playing shouldn't just be something to consider on the holidays. Children need to play, in a diverse range of ways, every day.

If your child is attending school, they may be getting some or indeed many of these play needs met there, but it's important to think about how you can continue to support their needs after school and on weekends as well as on school holidays. Just because they eat a good lunch at school doesn't mean that you don't have to think about what they eat at home, right?


The Playful Pathways

5-a-Day of PLAY

A guide to the diversity of play opportunities and experiences

your child should have on a daily basis

1. Creative and imaginative play

The kind of play and activities that allow children to exercise their imaginations and problem-solving skills.

Includes - Making music, dancing, art & craft, building/constructing, role-play, reading, storytelling and projection play (e.g. playing with dolls, figurines or vehicles).

2. Outdoor and nature play

Kids love to be outdoors; exploring, adventuring and using ALL of their 5 senses. Time spent outdoors is linked with a number of health benefits of children and adults. Experts recommend at least 3 hrs per day!

Includes - Exploring and adventuring in the great outdoors (which could mean your backyard, a local park, your neighbourhood, the countryside, bush-walking or beach etc.) interacting with wildlife or animals, mess-making, garden-potion making, engaging with natural sensory materials (e.g. sand, water, mud, leaves and sticks), risky play, outdoor sports and activities like bike riding or scooting.

3. Active and physical play

Daily physical activity is absolutely essential for children’s mental and physical health. Children under 5 can’t stay still for long and should be active much more than they are sitting still. Children over 5 should have at least 1hr per day of physical activity

Includes - Indoor and outdoor physical activities, running, cycling, scooting, sports, dancing, playing on playground equipment, risky play, trampoline, skipping, swimming and martial arts.

4. Parent-child play

Time spent being with your child is essential for building a strong parent-child relationship . A strong attachment between children and parents leads to range of long term social, emotional and mental benefits for the child, including providing protection from some of the worst affects of trauma and adversity. Even 10mins per day of child-led play can help to strengthen feelings of connection and understanding between parents and children and help to build your child's resilience.

Includes - Cuddling, talking, singing, relaxing, engaging in cooperative tasks together (such as cooking or building), reading, storytelling and most of all play!

The best kind of parent-child play is child-led, but if you need a bit of inspiration you could try - hide & seek, chasing & catching games, playdough, art & craft, building things together, board games, card games, pillow fights, role-playing (such as doctors, hairdressers, parents & babies and schools), copying & mirroring games and letting your child ‘teach’ you something.

5. Social connection, responsibility and helping

Most children, especially in the toddler years, love to help. This is a wonderful trait which should be encouraged throughout childhood. Asking children to help, do chores, work with others or participate in activities that are focused on improving someone else’s situation, is beneficial for building their sense of social responsibility and connection, as well as fostering internal feelings of being capable, independent and having something to offer the world.

Although this might not seem like play, it can absolutely be integrated into your daily routines in a playful way, by offering children choices in what or how they would like to be of service to others.

Includes - Tidying, cleaning, helping family members (including siblings), helping others (e.g. neighbours), picking up litter, thoughtful gestures, fixing, donating and sharing.


The 5-a-Day of play is by no means a prescriptive or exhaustive list of things that your child must do every day. There are plenty of ways that your child might be playing or exploring that I haven't included in my suggestions, or they may be engaging in a couple of different kinds of play at the same time, so this shouldn't be used as a schedule (parents have enough of those to juggle already). I hope that it can be used more as a guide to help parents, educators and children themselves to think about the play opportunities that children are offered and consider, firstly whether or not children are getting enough play time at all, and secondly whether or not there is enough diversity and balance in what or how they play.

And of course we can't overlook the importance of free, unstructured play time. While I am suggesting that you provide opportunities and encourage your child to play in each of the above ways on a daily basis, I also suggest that whenever possible you allow your child to make their own choices about how they play within each of the categories e.g. take them to the park but then allow them to choose what they want to play while they're there.

Unstructured, self-directed play time is enormously valuable for children, promoting independence, creativity, problem-solving, cooperation, initiative and giving children the chance to identify their own strengths and interests. It's also worth bearing in mind that children will usually play far more contentedly and for longer with games or activities of their own creation or choosing.

In the absence of clear evidence of the benefits or harm that screen time can cause, it is up to each family to decide what place they will take up in your family life. I hope that parents are able to use this 5-a-Day guide to strike the best balance between the many different ways their children are able to play.



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