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The Mindlessness of Play

Updated: May 25

By Helenor Gilmour, Director of Insight, Beano Brain


Growing up in a challenged part of inner-city Glasgow, my childhood perhaps wouldn’t be described as idyllic in the classic sense. But what we did have in abundance was the freedom to play – from 2-mile forays to the local loch with a scrunched-up picnic in a plastic bag to roaming through an abandoned brickworks discovering “treasure” (I’m now an inveterate beachcomber!).


We climbed more roofs than trees and held bike races around our housing scheme. During Wimbledon fortnight (and pre all those NO BALL GAMES signs that appeared from the mid 70’s onwards) we marked out a makeshift tennis court in the car park with 2 sticks and string for nets (definitely no skimmers allowed!).


During the summers we had seemingly endless games of kick-the-can with kids congregating from all the surrounding houses. Yes, there were fall-outs, the occasional grumpy neighbours, inevitable childhood dramas, even bullying, but those years of free play made me.


They taught me resilience, to be aware of and cope with danger, to make quick decisions, and simply playing gave me an escape from other worries and grounded me in my surroundings.



(image source)


The freedom to play taught me mindlessness. To enjoy myself and my world for no particular reason, objective and agenda. After the year we’ve had we could all do with some of that but most especially our children.


It’s hardly surprising that our ongoing research at Beano Brain has shown large rises in sedentary behaviours over lockdown – watching TV, gaming and watching videos. Of course gaming and digital playgrounds have been life savers for parents and children over the last year but even these fantastically creative worlds come with rules, restrictions and conventions.


Lockdown restrictions reduced external play, particularly for those with no access to a garden and that has the potential to damage children’s long-term development. We’ve also seen the impact of lockdown throughout our weekly check-ins with our Trendspotter panel. Restricted access to free play and friendships have impacted their mental health.


At Beano Brain we are wholeheartedly backing Save The Children’s Summer of Play Campaign but as we emerge from Covid we think that now more than ever we have the opportunity to do things differently and push the importance of play up the agenda.


It’s well documented that childhood mental health issues are on the rise but we believe Covid is only part of that scenario. After years of formal schooling, SATS pressure and testing, our kids and teens have been bombarded with messages of falling behind and are feeling the pressure – our recent omnibus discovered that 4 in 10 kids in the UK and US were feeling stressed about exams.


Of course we must prepare young people for their roles in the adult world but if everyone agrees that most of the jobs our kids will take up haven’t even been invented yet, let’s build their soft skills – decision making, self reliance, negotiation, conflict resolution, resilience – and what better way than to push play up the agenda?


In our landmark 2019 White Paper “Getting to Know Gen Alpha” we predicted that Gen A would put a premium on the freedom to play – their parents are keener than those even of Gen Z for their kids to play independently. 55% Gen A parents feel STRONGLY that they want kids to have the opportunity to spend time outdoors to play/explore independently.


We have yet to see the full impact of Covid 19 but if the last year has taught us anything it’s that our own mental wellness and that of the next generation MUST be a priority. So let’s release that pressure valve amongst our kids and teens encourage play for play’s sake. Let’s lose the lists, the leader boards and the rules and let’s all embrace a bit mindlessness.


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