Don't Underestimate the Power of Play

One of the best things about kids is their sense of fun and adventure. Whether it’s playing pretend, drawing, or freeze tag, they are enthusiastic participants. And while all this playing may seem like just fun and games, research shows it is actually at the core of child development.

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Play helps children express and develop creativity.

Unstructured playtime allows children to create their own games, scenarios, and worlds. Unlike any other part of their day, playtime allows them to make up the rules and to try out different roles. Especially at a young age, children don’t need many toys or props to facilitate their play, but rather their imagination and perhaps a willing playmate.

Play helps children develop social-emotional skills.

Playtime with peers teaches children to cooperate, share, negotiate, and resolve conflicts. When adults aren’t directly involved, children have the opportunity to work out problems among themselves and learn to communicate their own thoughts and feelings.

Play helps children develop healthy, active lifestyles.

Unstructured play encourages children to be physically active, compared to other kinds of entertainment, such as watching TV, playing a video game, or using an iPad. Physical activities also provide a necessary outlet for children after sitting still for long stretches of time.

Children are not the only beneficiaries of playtime. When parents participate with their children in play, they get to see the world through their children’s eyes. This encourages a better understanding of their children’s needs and perspectives, and also provides a space for less verbal children to express their feelings. Through one-on-one play parents have the chance to fully engage their children and to give them their undivided focus, which communicates love and value.

Is playtime at risk?

Research shows that despite these benefits, playtime is decreasing for today’s children. One reason is that in order to make more time for subjects such as reading and math, schools continue to cut back on recess and physical education. This has been a common response to heightened state requirements for education.

Another reason is that parents are encouraged early on to enroll their children in extracurricular programs to ensure they have access to the best opportunities. These structured activities decrease time for free play. Ironically, research suggests that they are less effective than child-directed free play in promoting planning and decision-making skills and goal-directed behavior.

So what can you do?

If you’re the parent of a young child, a simple (although perhaps not easy to implement) answer is to create more time for your child to engage in free play, or to be protective of the time they already have. It’s also a good idea to keep screen time (TV and computer-related activities) to a minimum.

Even if you’re not a parent, you can still help promote play among the children in your community. Although there are no easy solutions, here are a couple of ways you can help. One is to help make sure that your neighborhood is a safe place in which children can play; fears about safety can be one reason that parents don’t encourage their children toward unstructured play.

A second way is to simply encourage parents you know that they don’t have to run the rat race that much of society encourages — being a good parent is not measured by the number of sports or instruments that a child plays. The happiest children are those who have loving family relationships and plenty of time to be creative and use their imaginations.

So the next time you see children absorbed in games or inventions that may seem pointless or trivial, remember — whenever children play, there is important development at work!