Take a moment and think back to your childhood. What did you do for fun? When you had free time? When you truly enjoyed yourself and lost track of time? You may have enjoyed playing pretend – playing house, playing school, or playing cars. You may have loved to roughhouse with your siblings, play catch outside, or ride your bikes with friends. What you didn’t know at the time was that this active, unstructured play was really important.
Play is essential for a child’s cognitive, emotional, social, and physical development. Play helps kids learn to navigate their world and adapt to it. Play helps kids develop creativity, curiosity, learning, innovation, flexibility, adaptability, and resilience.
In play, kids can try out anything they want without threatening their physical or emotional well-being. They can simulate different situations and experiences while maintaining safety. Through these rehearsals, they can learn skills and about life.
Play also helps with social skills. Play can help kids learn the normal give-and-take necessary in social situations. It helps them learn to take other people’s perspectives. Kids can learn the differences between friendly teasing and words that will make a friend become upset through play, and how to make up when this boundary is crossed.
Play is important in developing parts of the brain – it stimulates growth in the areas of the brain controlling cognition, emotion, attention, language processing, and more. It is crucial to provide babies and young children with the chance to play and socialize in order to help their brains develop to their full potential. Playing literally helps kids become smarter.
In addition, play helps children make sense of their bodies and their environment.
By interacting with things around them, babies learn to internalize movement, time, and space. By playing sports or other physical activities, kids continue to improve their motor skills and physical health.
Unfortunately, play is not as common anymore as it used to be. Researchers talk about a “play deficit,” which is the dramatic decline in recent years of kids being involved in active, unstructured, free play. Recess has been cut from many schools, and kids are filling their free time with TV, phones, and computer games, which are more passive activities that don’t develop the brain in the same way that play does. Kids’ time is also more occupied by structured activities, such as sports and clubs. Structured activities, while beneficial in many ways, don’t require the imagination and exploration that makes true play so powerful.
This play deficit can lead to physical and emotional problems in kids. Play derivation has been linked to atypical social behavior, poorly developed motor skills, acting out in school, violence, Type II diabetes, and obesity.
I can hear you asking, “So what can I do to make sure my child doesn’t experience this play deficit?” Don’t worry, it’s pretty easy.
Give your kids free time where they are able to play whatever they want. Buy them toys that are conducive to active, imaginative play.
Schedule play dates with no planned activities. Let them wander around the backyard creating their own games and stories. Play with them sometimes, and allow yourself to experience the joy of play as well. Give it time – if they’re not used to playing like this very often, it will feel strange at first. They may need you to encourage them or play with them quite a bit initially. Your child will likely benefit in many ways from adding more play into their life.