The Power of Play: Preventing Bullying

Categories: Social Wellbeing / Friendship

This post was written by ParentTV expert Claire Orange

The link between decreased play and increased bullying

With more and more time taken from play in the early years of education is it little surprise that there is an increase in bullying behaviours in the primary years.  Whilst children may (and this is questionable) be leap-frogging ahead with the 3 R’s – Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic, the other R’s that are the foundation of formalised learning and life learning have been almost squeezed out – Resilience, Regulation and Relationships.

These are the essential R’s that power learning and protect a child from bullying – and play is the way in which these skills are learned and laid down in the early years.

Why the skills learned in play are a bullying-protector

The skills learned in the early years through playing are those that a child uses as a template for managing all future interactions – including the noxious ones that pop up and are often labelled as bullying. The child who does not know how to build strong relationships, respond to the needs of others or to stick up for themselves is far more at risk of being bullied or becoming a child who engages in hurtful behaviours towards other.

The unpredictable, free and creative nature of play is the perfect platform for children to learn skills that will be essential to their learning and essential to living a happy, resilient and flourishing life.

What are proactive skills?

These are the skills that build a child up – that give them confidence, resilience and strengthen their relationships. Proactive skills are growth skills and attributes – reactive skills are the protective ones – and they’re important too and are covered in the blog that follows.

Let’s have a look at the 5 top proactive skills that every child needs in their playground toolbelt – and how these humble play-based skills link to learning and to life after school.

#1 Empathy

In play – it means seeing my impact on you and modifying what I’m doing accordingly. This is a very complex skill for an egocentric little person to learn but is the most important attribute when it comes to bullying prevention. Empathy can be taught to children and often is in ways that are not always beneficial – like saying to a little one, “You’ve made him cry – that’s not very nice.” We need to get better at teaching what to do instead and how to make something better once it’s been enacted.

For parents to watch: HOW DO YOU GROW UP GRATEFUL KIDS by Dr Vanessa Lapointe

Link to learning: Classrooms have many children, with many levels of ability and for the group to be successful it requires the child at the top and the child at the bottom to understand the strengths and limitations of each other. When learners learn with empathy beautiful behaviours result – like mentoring and peer to peer coaching.

Link to life: It only takes a little look at politics to know that empathy is often missing – with results that can smash into families, cultures, societal groupings. Empathy is the key skill in bullying prevention in the classroom, the playground, online and in the workplace too.

#2 Sharing

This is a difficult skill – allowing you to play with something that I really want. It takes many years for children to learn this skill – as it should because it’s dependent on the complex connections in the brain that support this skill. We would all know an adult who can’t or won’t share and they’re hard work – in a relationship or in the workplace.

For parents to watch: WHY SHARING IS A BIG DEAL by Stephanie Wicker

Link to learning: Classroom time is shared – and not supposed to be monopolised, as it often is, by just a few children in a class. Successful classrooms are those where children know how to share teacher and physical resources.

Link to life: Every successful partnership is based on the ability to share. Perhaps it is financial resources or parenting responsibilities. None of this can be about me, me, me – and that learning begins right back there in play experiences.

#3 Emotional Intelligence

Knowing about feelings – what they are, what they’re called and when they happen is part of every play experience. Children feel happy, surprised, disappointed, sad and angry as they play with others. And through those play experiences they learn to talk about their feelings and learn to manage them too.


Link to learning: The child who is emotionally reactive is rarely successful in managing themselves around the demands of the classroom. Children’s emotional regulation is one of the most important parts of learning successfully – just ask any teacher who has tried to teach a resistant or upset child.

Link to life: A no-brainer – emotionally intelligent people do better. The person who has experienced the disappointment of being left out during play develops their self-management skills and their resilience and they carry that forward into their lives.

#4 Collaboration and cooperation

Yes, this requires empathy and sharing as well as impulse control, good communication skills, relationship building skills. When buckets are used towards a common goal in the sandpit of building an enormous castle and everyone is allocated roles and responsibilities that simple part of play is creating amazing pathways in the human brain. When children learn to play cooperatively the chances of bullying behaviours like repeated put downs and exclusions become limited.

For parents to watch: HOW TO TEACH YOUR CHILD SELF CONTROL by Dr Justin Coulson

Link to learning: Again, the child who has learned to work within a group – to take the role of leader and of do-er is going to learn better. Every classroom requires children to work collaboratively and the child who can’t – well, we all know that child and how much their learning is held up.

Link to life: Have you applied for a job where one of the criteria mentioned the ability to work as part of a team? Yes? Well, that skill is learned in the playground. Without the complexities of child-led free play these skills are rarely sufficiently developed for the demands of formalised learning or the workplace one day.

#6 Resilience

This paragraph has almost written itself in your mind already – yes? Of course, the child with the skill to calm themselves down when disappointed or let down during play is learning the life skill of rising to meet a challenge. Bullying is a challenge and we want children using the skills they’ve learned in play to manage themselves effectively and positively – it makes them much, much less of a bullying target.

For parents to watch: HELPING TWEENS DEAL WITH DISAPPOINTMENT by Rachel Doherty and 9 WAYS TO A RESILIENT CHILD COURSE by Dr Justin Coulson.

Link to learning: Learning resilience – well, learning is tough for most children and mistakes are going to be made and challenging situations are going to happen. Learning can be rapidly derailed for the competent by low-resilience child. There is a direct translation of the resilience banked in play to a child’s resilience in their learning.

Link to life: Life is a journey – one that can include fantastic and uplifting events – as well at tough and emotionally crunching ones. The child who banks resilience as they play – falling over and getting back up, taking risks and getting over little and big upsets is banking their resilience for life.

Play – it’s essential in the early years for learning and life success

We all know that children love to play but perhaps we don’t fully appreciate how paramount it is to a child’s social and learning success. Bullying has happened in playgrounds for centuries – and sadly, it will continue to happen. So, preparing a child to manage it effectively is essential and it starts with the skills learned through play.

When children don’t spend enough time learning these skills in the early years they’re at enormous risk in the primary and secondary years of school that follow of not having the appropriate proactive and reactive skills on hand to manage bullying when it happens.

If you are looking for more ideas and resources on the ‘power of play’ click here to see the library of videos related to play-based learning on ParentTV.