After some intensive days at the recent international ECEERA conference I made some time for some R and R. On a beach near Porto I sat absorbed watching the children (of what appeared to be two families) enjoying their time at the seaside. Whilst walking along the beach, the children (two girls aged about 5 years and two boys aged about 18 months) had stopped surprised by a sudden surge of water landing nearby. Each time a wave hit the beach, jets of water were sprayed in the air by a natural rock formation. Their parents loitered, presumably unsure of whether the children were ready to move on. After some time stood watching, one mother and father sat down on the beach clearly detached from play. The other father in contrast remained standing, closely watching, offering a supportive and encouraging hand to his toddler and periodically joining in with the children’s play.  Chasing them in and out of the narrow channel of sand between the rocks further enhanced the children’s excited squeals. As if attached by an invisible thread the father kept tabs on his tottering son and the two excited girls. His subtle presence and ever ready hand to steady his teetering son supported his exploration and venturing ever closer to the sea.

A game then developed between him and the other children. It was not clear who had instigated this timeless game of chase by a ‘monster’ but judging by their outstretched hands, excited cowering behind their parents and shrieks of joy when tickled, the children were clearly enjoying it. The father masterfully maintained a conversation with the adults whilst occasionally lurching towards the children, making tickling gestures. Every now and again he interrupted his discussion to chase them, generating peals of laughter and delight. The playful and attentive disposition of this father were evident as from time to time he threw a cupped handful of sea water over the seated adults and took delight in grabbing them with his icy cold hands – this was the Atlantic after all.  Throughout he skilfully and effortlessly attended to the children’s needs, supported without stifling and joined them in their game.

One particularly playful episode culminated in the father picking up his daughter by her legs and pulling her along the sand towards the water edge where he dropped her in the sea. What happens next gives a real measure of his playfulness as seeing his daughter crying it appears that his boisterousness behaviour may have backfired as she has scratched her tummy on the course sand. He looks at her with concern and then seemingly reassured that she is ok, drops immediately to the ground gesturing for the two girls to drag him to the water. Unable to pull him, he uses his body to help them manoeuvre him to the sea where they triumphantly ‘drop’ him. His actions instantly transform the atmosphere, uniting the children and him and infusing the moment with fun.

With his involvement reaching a natural conclusion, the two girls run up the steep sandy bank that you have to negotiate before reaching the sea, running back down with arms outstretched, screaming as they do so. It’s not long before the young boys join them and all four are happily engaged in walking up the bank and running down it towards the sea, experimenting with their noise-making as they do so.

Sitting there taking it all in, I couldn’t help think that this beach offered huge play potential and affordance in two key ways. The natural rock formation with its intermittent jets of spray and the inviting sandy bank provided excitement, surprise, interest and challenge for these four children. But this alone would not have been sufficient to engage them without the positive emotional environment provided by that playful father. This play episode encapsulates perfectly the dance-like qualities of play and the importance of environmental and emotional affordance in helping children reach their potential.