Focus: Jeremy and Susie are model parents. He plays cricket with the boys, she takes her daughter to ballet. So what are they doing so wrong?

Have parents really forgotten that play is just for fun? Celia Dodd meets a mother and father who are trying their hardest and, below, lets their five children have their say too

Jeremy works hard to keep his five children happy, active and stimulated. When he isn't facing one of the kids with a cricket bat or a tennis racket in his hand, the advertising agency director spends his weekends driving them to swimming galas or roller hockey matches. His wife, Susie, is at least as actively engaged with her children, whose ages range from six to 14, all through the week. Their schedule is exhausting, and intimidating for those of us whose attitude to childcare is laced with frustration and guilt. Susie and Jeremy certainly deserve the weekend they just spent together alone - the first since their eldest son was born. Unfortunately, it now seems that for all the hard work they are doing everything wrong.

That would be one (harsh) interpretation, anyway, of a survey published last week by the Children's Society and the Children's Play Council. It found that nearly three-quarters of parents say they play with their children every day - but that nearly three-quarters of children say that isn't true. The children believe they play with their parents only once a week, if at all. The parents aren't lying, but neither are their offspring. It is just that the generations have different notions of what playing means.

"Parents see simply spending time with their children as playing with them, whereas children see play as something more active," says Issy Cole-Hamilton, policy and research officer at the Children's Play Council. "So while parents might think sitting watching the kids playing in the park is playing, the child doesn't; children want more involvement."

It's not that parents aren't interested in their children - the problem is that they try almost too hard. They are so earnest about doing the very best by their offspring that they take playing too seriously, cramming too many jolly activities into precious weekends and introducing an unwelcome element of coaching into their games. The notion of "quality time" has become a millstone, goading hard-pressed parents into squeezing the most out of every precious moment, when all the kids want is to get down on the floor with the building blocks and the Lego. Children in the survey said that they did not play with their parents because they were too bossy, too busy, and did not know how to play children's games.

And these days the word "play" is too often preceded by the phrase "learning through". The increasing pressure on parents to encourage their kids to draw/read/catch a ball/speak French/play the violin has changed their attitudes to play.

"The whole point about play is that it should be the child leading it," says Issy Cole-Hamilton. "And imaginative games are definitely as important as competitive games like tennis or football." Yet the survey found that many fathers in particular cannot help being competitive, and find it hard to get down to their child's level. It's no wonder that fathers were some of the least popular playmates in the survey.

Jeremy Thorpe-Woods, who puts so much effort into his family, admits: "I have no problem with structured play like sport or Lego, but when it comes to hide-and-seek or fantasy play I don't want to get involved. If I joined in it would ruin it and they'd probably think I was weird."

He's not the only one. Playing just for fun is something adults have lost the knack of; it has become yet another thing we have to learn. But thankfully it is not that difficult; it's not particularly time-consuming, and it would actually make parents' lives easier, according to the Children's Play Council. Issy Cole-Hamilton says: "Adults should look back and think about the play they enjoyed. It's about letting yourself enjoy playing and not think it's silly.

"Though play children learn things that nobody else can teach them. They learn how to get on with other people, what they're good at, what they like doing, what their limits are. It's possibly even more important as children get older, because if parents and children can enjoy doing things together they can get a much better understanding of each other."

'Beanie Babies are too girly for Dad'

Isabella, six

I don't really look forward to ballet on Saturdays - it's a bit boring. My favourite game is playing schools with my Beanie Babies with my mum or my au pair. I'm always the teacher. My dad doesn't play because he doesn't like girls' games. I like playing cricket and going to the park with him. He watches and reads the paper. But the best thing is in the swimming pool when he throws me up in the air.

Edward, eight

I play hide-and-seek with my brothers usually. I wouldn't want my dad to play because grown-ups are big so they'd be quite easy to find. When I was three I had lots of imaginary friends. Dad always had to be "the wicked gentleman". But now I'm eight I'm bored with that stuff. Now he helps me with my Lego, which is quite hard, and we play the Warhammer board game. He doesn't really like it. Mum helps me do drawing and takes me to the playground. She would play with me if I asked her but I don't because I'm big enough to play there on my own.

Robert, 10

I like playing imaginary games with my friends. I think it would be fun if my dad played. I sometimes play with my toy soldiers and I'd quite like it if he joined in. My mum doesn't really have enough time to play as much as dad because she's at work and cooking. My dad plays tennis with me every night. He teaches me how to serve - it's great because I want to learn more about tennis. We often do 40 lengths in the pool together because I have to train for galas every weekend. We haven't got a PlayStation because my mum thinks it would mean no exercise. Sometimes I wish we had one, but I know people who all they do is stare at the screen. The outside world's better.

When Dad gets home from work I often ask him to play chess. Sometimes he's ready, sometimes not. He is quite competitive - he likes winning. But he gets me to encourage other people when I'm playing against them.

William, 13

I love my weekends. I really look forward to them. What I like best is playing the guitar with my dad. He thinks he's really good! I like it much better than the oboe, which I gave up, because I do it on my own. We're both really keen on rugby too. My dad taught me to drop-kick and we pass the balls and kick to each other. Sometimes he is quite competitive, but he never gets angry with anyone if he loses.

Going to the Hayward Gallery with my mum is great. She really likes modern art and we learn some good tips. She helps me a lot with my painting. A lot of my friends don't have limits on how much telly they watch but we do.

James, 14

My parents play with us a lot and give us a lot of attention. I'm normally not that lively on Saturday morning so I don't do much. When he's got time I do quite a lot of sport with my dad. He gives me tips and stuff. It sometimes feels like being coached, but it's still fun. We are competitive, but it's more a laugh really. I don't normally beat him - that's probably why he doesn't mind! I usually get thrashed by him.

We used to play lots of board games together. He also taught me to play chess, and there used to be quite a lot of rivalry between me and my dad. It doesn't normally get out of hand; it's usually just a bit of a laugh. We don't play much now because it's quite time-consuming. Dad is sometimes bossy, but then all parents are! And I think playing together helps our relationship.

'Children are competitive. I'm not'

Jeremy Thorpe-Woods, an advertising agency director, lives in west London with his wife Susie and their five children.

The kids are competitive. I'm not! It's encouragement rather than coaching - I'm not qualified to coach Robert to play tennis. It's probably better that the boys beat me - it's one way of keeping them interested. We do go in for a lot of good-natured wrestling in the garden or pool. By the end of the weekend my neck and back are wrecked. I think boys need physical contact: they like pushing and pulling people around.

It seems to be different for girls. What Isabella gets from play is emotional closeness, attention and, to a certain extent, control - as in "That's not how you play it Daddy, you play it this way". I think play brings children emotionally closer to their parents.

There are times when it just gets too much, but that's the nature of a large family.

Susie, part-time teacher

I spend a lot of the weekend playing with the children; I'm with them all the time. I really enjoy it when I've got the time to play, though sometimes I feel sure we could do more.

I definitely think play teaches children life skills like turn-taking and co-operating, and it encourages creativity. It's sometimes hard to separate from the academic stuff. My husband is quite keen to bring them on in sport; there's definitely a coaching element to it, although I wouldn't say it's competitive. Having said that, I lost a swimming race with my 10-year-old son for the first time last year. I was quite surprised and not very pleased!

With the older boys it's not really play. It's more showing an interest. James and I recently went round some churches in Italy with me talking about the frescoes and what they meant. It was lovely doing that. I really felt we'd shifted up a gear.

WEEKEND TIMETABLE

Saturday

9.30 Jeremy drops Edward at his art lesson.

11am Susie takes Isabella to ballet; James and William do homework.

12pm Jeremy takes Robert to the local sports centre to play an hour's football, tennis or rugby.

2pm Robert and Edward have a swimming gala. Susie stays at home with the older boys and Isabella. They play whatever Isabella fancies: drawing, sticking or dressing up.

Sunday

10.30 Susie takes the children to church, and the younger ones to Sunday school, except Robert, who plays cricket with his dad.

12pm William and his dad cycle or drive to roller hockey club.

1pm After lunch the family does something at home: board games, cards, Lego.

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