She's got a room full of expensive toys and a string of little playmates. So, why don't Mum and Dad ever get a minute's peace? Didn't kids used to play by themselves? asks Hester Lacey

THE TOY cupboards of the nation's children are in post-Christmas bulge mode. But who is really going to end up playing with the Spice Barbie and the miniature garage and the Lego and the colouring books? Will it be little Jack and/or Charlotte - or will it be you? A quiet hour or two where the children are happily occupied in their room is most parents' idea of a heavenly oasis in the day, but, most often, the kids just don't seem to get the idea at all.

"My daughters, Karen and Natalie, who are eight and six, don't seem to understand the notion of playing on their own," says one harassed mother, Sara Cope. "I will install them with paints or their Barbies and leave them to get on with it and 10 minutes later they come out saying, `Mum, Mum, do this for us, help us with such-and-such,' or, `Mum, she won't play properly'. It's not as if they are starved of attention or anything like that. They just don't seem to be able to settle to anything unless there is a grown-up with them."

She adds that the problem is not confined to home. "When I take them out to the park they won't scamper off and play - I have to scamper, too, to get the game going. When I was their age, I had a sister who I played with endlessly and we used to get quite upset if the grown-ups interrupted us."

Karen, meanwhile, is fidgeting with a jigsaw puzzle. "I like playing with Mummy more than Natalie," she explains. "Natalie is stupid sometimes and gets it all wrong. When we paint and Mummy's not there, Natalie messes up all the colours and the brushes, and when I want to play schools she always wants to be the teacher, but I'm the oldest so I ought to choose, really. When Mummy plays, it's better than playing with your sister."

Karen is not the only child who would rather play with a thirtysomething than a contemporary. "It's almost like role reversal in our family - I end up doing the playing, supervised by my son," says Paul Larsson, father of Sam, nine. "Sam often gets models or construction games as gifts and he always wants me to set them up while he sits and watches - he's perfectly capable of doing it and points out if I've made a mistake, he just doesn't want to. He's much happier letting me do it all."

Sam's friends, says Paul, are much the same. "Because Sam is an only child, we encourage him to have friends round as much as possible. But when he has other little boys round to play, they begin by just tearing about and shouting. They have to be told quite firmly to start a proper game, and then they get on with it. But they don't seem to have the inspiration on their own to get started."

Others can be quite shocked at finding that they are expected to join in at playtime. "I invite my friends and their kids for the weekend," says Liz Scott, herself a mother of two children, "and I expect the kids to spend at least some time playing on their own, especially if they are a similar age to mine - seven and nearly 10. But several of my friends seem to feel that grown-ups should be a constant entertainment and we spend all our time playing, too, when they come to stay. It's exhausting and we don't get to spend any time together as adults. Once they bought an entire cardboard village thing and we all had to sit down and make it up - it took hours and the adults ended up doing most of the cutting and sticking."

Some parents have a mixed set. "My younger son, who's three, will quite happily go upstairs and play with his cars on his own - I think it's because he's the second child," says another mother. "The first ones get used to lots of attention, while the second ones are more left to get on with it. My older one played with me all the time - my mother-in-law would say to me, `Don't play with him so much, he won't be able to play on his own!' Although one of my friends has two little girls who won't leave her side."

In the US, the number of playing parents has reached epidemic proportions. "It's terrible over there," says a British mother who spent some time in Washington DC. "If you go to someone's house with your children, the children don't all go off together and play - instead you're expected to spend the whole time baking cookies and making models and having a Play Experience. It's all part of a guilty-good-Mom situation. I'm starting to see it over here too. It's lovely when you go to someone's house for lunch and all the kids disappear to amuse themselves - and they love it, too. But, these days, I find I'm expected to join in instead of collapsing with the other mums over a glass of wine."

Play is more than fun, it is also a vital learning process for children. One of the latest theories on child development suggests that peer playgroups may have as much influence on a child's personality as parental input, even for only children who may play alone at home. Educational therapist Jean Robb runs the Successful Learning Institute near Liverpool and is the co-author of Creating Kids Who Can Concentrate (Hodder and Stoughton, pounds 9.99). "Teaching children to play is as important as anything else we teach," she says. "Play is a metaphor for interaction with other people. Parents used to teach their children how to look after themselves and play safely, but since television and then video came along, they have stopped doing it.

"Children today are very good at sitting passively in front of a screen, but less good at generating play for themselves. They need to learn the skills of using their imagination." Play, she says, introduces important principles such as taking turns and listening to other people's points of view. "There are lots of children, often very intelligent children, who are cute at two, sort-of-cute at five, and unbearable at eight, because they are careless of other people, careless of other people's possessions."

Adults, she says, could consider "joining in without wanting to teach. If you have laid out money and time on a game, you feel you want `quality time', so children don't get to simply fire off water pistols or have pillow fights." Parents, she suggests, might think about the things they themselves enjoyed as children - "things that didn't involve the investment of money, but the investment of space and mess. A simple bubble ring, anything that makes a noise for a home band, cutting up vegetables into animal shapes - almost anything. Children these days rarely have big playrooms - they have expensive clothes and immaculate rooms and they are very nervous about experimenting with things and making a mess."

Jennifer Smith, chartered educational psychologist and consultant to the Early Learning Centre, says that active play has certainly not disappeared. "Children vary enormously; some are active participants, others need encouraging by an adult. But the current scenario, with video and television, plays more into passivity than in the past." She believes that parents themselves encourage children to seek out play with adults. "Parents feel guilty because they are always so busy, so they make themselves available and say, `Do you want mummy to help with that?' And another thing is that adults are often very busy and don't stop and watch what's going on - because we are all so frantic, a lot of play may be going on that we simply don't see."

And if a child's preferred recreation involves having mum and/or dad on hand to participate, it may mean more work for parents, but is nothing to worry about, says Colwyn Trevarthen, emeritus professor of child psychology at Edinburgh University. "People shouldn't panic," he says. "Modern society puts big pressures on everyone and parents tend to fuss more. But the motive to play is still there. Play is changing. Children play with what's around and if they see cars, televisions and computers that will be reflected in their play. But one thing that will not change is that happy and healthy children will be playful."