The Remarkable Power of Play – Why Play is so Important for Children

The Remarkable Power of Play - Why Play is so Important for Children

Childhood was different in the ‘60s. Children spent their days in the sunshine, playing backyard cricket or riding bikes around the neighbourhood – often in a motley crew but never in a helmet or sunscreen. Sunscreen was what happened during a lunar eclipse and protective head gear generally took the form of a cap. Worn backwards. And seatbelts? They were a sweet idea, but quite useless if there were a tribe of kids in the back.

We’ve learnt a lot since then and we’ve moved forward in a lot of ways, but we’ve been getting something wrong.

Since the 1960’s, time children spend playing has decreased.

It’s a different world today and it is no longer as safe for kids cruise to through the streets by themselves. There are different challenges and different pulls on our time. Families are busy, mums and dads are busy, kids are busy. One thing that hasn’t changed since the 60s is the critical role of play in developing little people into healthy, vibrant, thriving, healthy bigger ones. It’s up there with education, love and sleep.

How free play builds healthy, vibrant humans. 

Free play is critical for children to learn the skills that are essential to life – skills that cannot be taught in a more formal, structured setting.

In every way, play is practice for the life. A lot of play involves imitating grown-ups – their work, their roles, the way they interact. 

Learning how to play is as important as anything that can come from play. It’s no accident that children will often spend as much time establishing what the play will look like, or the rules of the game, as they do actually playing it. They learn vital social and emotional skills that they could not learn anywhere else – how to get on with others, how to be empathic, nurturing, kind, strong, generous, how to deal with difficult people, how to be a part of something bigger than themselves, how to get their own needs met without crashing the needs of others. Learning how to play is as important as anything that can come from play. We want them to know that life can be fun and a happy, healthy life means being able to tap into that, even as grown-ups. As a part of play, they can’t help but learn.

Play is instinctive and not just for human children – all young mammals play. This shows how important it is to development.

Research has shown that the reason children grow so slowly and are dependent for so long is because the brain is taking so much of the body’s resources, leaving little available for physical growth. At mid-childhood, around the age of 4, the brain is at its busiest, maxing out synapses (connections) and developing more intensely and quickly than it will at any other age. This is when we learn an abundance of skills needed to be successful humans – social skills, curiosity, creativity, problem-solving. The world of a toddler is a busy one – so much to do! There’s a lot to learn at and it’s no accident that this is the age when the need for play is at its peak.

Children are naturally playful. If they have the opportunities to follow the curiosity, do what they enjoy, and discover and experiment with the world around them, they will thrive. Without it, parts of their development will struggle.

Let them play and they’ll thrive. Here’s how.

Children were born to play. Their development depends on it. Provide the opportunities and the development will happen:

  1. Their creativity will flourish.

    An extensive body of research has found that over the past few decades the amount of free play for children has reduced. In a study published in the Creativity Learning Journal, respected Professor of Education, Kyung Hee Kim wrote,

    ‘Since 1990, even as IQ scores have risen, creative thinking scores have significantly decreased. The decrease for kindergartners through third graders was the most significant … children have become less emotionally expressive, less energetic, less talkative and verbally expressive, less humorous, less imaginative, less unconventional, less lively and passionate, less perceptive, less apt to connect seemingly irrelevant things, less synthesizing, and less likely to see things from a different angle.’

    Across the board – in business, academia, the arts – creativity has been long been lauded as a critical asset. In an IBM poll, 1500 CEOs were asked to name the best predictor of future success. Their answer? Creativity.

  2. Their cognitive function will strengthen.

    A study of 9 to 10-year-olds found that those who had a higher level of aerobic fitness had more fibrous and compact white-matter tracts in their brain than their peers who were less fit. These tracts are important for attention and memory.

    Clearly not many 9 or 10-year-olds are throwing on a Nike tank and popping off to the gym to pump weights or smash out a session on the treadmill. They get fit through play – climbing, running, jumping, bouncing – and now there is neurological evidence that fitness has a key role in expanding their cognitive function.

  3. Their social skills will develop.

    Through play, children learn how to get along with people and deal with the difficult ones. Every opportunity to play with other children is a crash course in what works and what doesn’t. Other children aren’t as ready to forgive antisocial behaviour as a parent might be. Similarly, other children will walk away from the play if the rules, often unsaid, aren’t fair for everyone.

    If they want to keep kids around (and sometimes they won’t, but they’ll soon learn this has its own consequences) they have to work out a way to satisfy their own needs and wants, without stepping on the needs and wants of others. There is compromise and negotiation. They will learn the edge of their own boundaries, what feels right and what doesn’t, and how to respect the boundaries of others. Sometimes there is a need for assertiveness. Sometimes there is need to walk away. Even as adults it can be hard to know which way to go.

    The children with more finely honed social skills find clever ways to get what they want. Sometimes this will look like ‘I’m doing you a favour’ – ‘Here. You can be a passenger and have a rest and look out the window and I’ll be the driver and take you where you want to go? Alright?’

    Others learn early on that framing assertions as questions is more likely to elicit a positive response, ‘Why don’t I wear the hat because I’m the driver, okay?’

    Often, children spend more time negotiating how the play will take place than actually playing. Who gets to be the train driver, who gets to be the passenger, where are they going, who’s in charge of the train, how do they know then the train is moving, but wait – don’t we need a baddie?

    The same skills are also at play in older children when they organise backyard sports. Who gets to bat? What’s the order? Where are the boundaries? Who gets to bowl? What are the rules? How are ambiguous calls decided?

  4. They will learn how to manage big feelings – theirs and others.

    In play, things won’t always go as planned. Things will move from being euphoric to devastatingly unfair – all within time it takes for the ‘wand’ to be transformed into a ‘stick’ (‘No you don’t have a wand, you have a stick. I have a wand so that means I’m the magic one and you are my servant. Okay? Now give me your stick servant.’) Demands and tantrums might work at home, but peers will never let it slide. It is through play, often when there are no adults around to adjudicate, that children learn how to measure their own emotional responses and to deal with the responses, unacceptable or otherwise, of others. There will be times to let their big feelings out (sometimes a good cry is the only way to deal), and sometimes it will be important to hold them in. They will practice self-control, negotiation, empathy, and how to get support and give it.

  5. They will discover their own power.

    During play, children often have opportunities to solve their own problems that they might not otherwise have the opportunity to do. They will realise their own resourcefulness, creativity, power, and their capacity to organise the environment to meet their own needs.

How to nurture their creativity through play.

There are two types of play time: play with you and play without and play with you. Play with you will be their most favourite type of play at all. Here are a couple of ways to inspire creativity in your little people when you are with them. Perhaps you do these things already, in which case it’s always good to hear that you’re on the right track. (I, for one, will take that kind of feedback from anywhere it’s being offered!):

  • Build a story where you, your child and anyone else who is with you takes turns to add a line. ‘Once upon a time there was a library. It was full of dusty books on dusty shelves, but on the very top floor was something magnificent. It looked like an ordinary box – but oh my goodness …’ Okay. Your turn.
  • Take them away from the here and now by asking open-ended, left-field questions.
    ♥  If you were invisible/ magic/ a grown up/ could fly, what would you do?
    ♥  If we could go for a holiday to the moon, what should we take?
    ♥  If you were in charge of the whole entire universe, what rules would you make for yourself? What rules would you make for everyone else if you didn’t have to follow those rules? Would they be different rules if you did have to follow them? What would they be?
    Then ask them to ask you some questions.
  • Make up different endings to the stories they’re familiar with. ‘What could be a different ending for ‘Frozen’?’ ‘What might have happened if one of the stepsisters fitted the glass slipper?’
  • Try an imagination game that requires them to call up things from their memory and make connections between different pieces of information. ‘Imagine that you are walking on the ceiling in your bedroom. What can you see? What’s your favourite thing to look at from up there? What can you hear? What does it feel like? How are you staying up there!’
  • Play ‘Give one back’ to provide children with insight into themselves – what they prefer, how they react. ‘Suppose I gave you an ice cream, a (favourite toy), or an astronaut’s suit that could take you to the moon, but you had to give one back. Which one would you give back? Why? What would you do with the things you kept?
  • Nurture their abstract thinking by inviting them to list unusual uses for everyday objects. You might need to get them started, but when they get the idea, sit back and watch them go. ‘What are all the things you could use a spoon for? Maybe a little shovel, a thing to paint a fence with, a nose shield so falling stars don’t land on it, a way to flick cooked carrot into outer space where it belongs’

And finally …

In every way, play is practice for being an adult.

Years ago, I was having trouble deciding to whether to send my son to school at 5, which would make him one of the youngest in the class, or wait another year, making him one of the oldest. I’d poured over the literature and the research and still had no idea. Would he get bored if I kept him back? If I sent him now, how would that impact him  in senior, if he was one of the youngest?

I spoke to the school principal about my dilemma and in one sentence, she brought to me a clarity that all of the research and all of the pondering couldn’t. 

She said, with a wisdom and grace that the ‘nice’ school principals seem to have patented, ‘Think of it as giving him another year of play.’

And that, right there, is the essence. Our children have such a limited time to explore, experiment, grow and be enriched in the way that only free play can do. It isn’t long before responsibilities and schedules set in.

But if, as the adults in their lives, we can foster a love of play, not just because ‘that’s what kids do’, but because of its inherent importance, we will be giving them something that will hold them well in relationships, in work and in life.

Even as adults, play is important in ensuring our lives will be a beautiful success. There is a richness that lies in wait for us to move responsibility and caution aside and play.

16 Comments

Clare O Sullivan

Dear Karen
Just to let you know how much I love your posts. My partner has 2 children 9 & 13 and although I spend lots of time with my niece and nephews sharing a home with kids can be challenging!
Also my sister just had a baby at 44 so I am learning lots about early development.
I also send many of your posts on to friends.
Thanks agin.
Kind regards
Clare O Sullivan
Occupational Therapist
Cork, Ireland

Reply
Hey Sigmund

Clare thank you so much – that means a lot to me. I know what you mean – sharing a home with kids can definitely be challenging! I hope you keep finding plenty of useful info here.

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Karen

Thank you for such a beautiful piece on playing! My children are starting their own families now, but I cherished being able to stay home with them and play during those younger years! Now I am able to play with my grandaughter… What pure joy it is as well!

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Hey Sigmund

Karen thank you. They grow up so quickly don’t they – and now you have your granddaughter. It sounds like she is in wonderful hands. What lovely memories she will make with you.

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Diana

Thank you for a wonderful article. I have always been a firm believer in letting children play. I had a licensed dayhome many years ago. I had several discussions with the “pros” about my home not being structured enough. I was always present with the children, but I was very much about letting them just interact and play together as much as me playing with them. I would invite my supervisors to come in and watch how many of the “required” curriculum was covered in play.
Now I am privileged to watch and play with my grandchildren. I hope more people will realize the importance of play

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Hey Sigmund

Thanks Diana. Yes that free play time is so important isn’t it. The time with you will be so important to your grandchildren. They’re lucky to have you.

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Pep

Thank you for this article. I like your play ideas, my 5 year old will love some of these. I’m also currently considering deferring my August born son and you may have just swayed me.

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Hey Sigmund

You’re so welcome Pep. Deciding whether or not to start school is a big decision isn’t it. There are pros and cons for both sides of the argument, and probably no wrong decisions. The extra year of play was the big one for me. I’m at the other end of it now – my son finished school last year and turned 18 in his final year of school. It meant he was that little bit older (and hopefully more mature!) when he graduated. Without the structure of school, there are more decisions that they need to make on their own and some of them are big ones. Of course, it doesn’t mean every decision will be a perfect one, but I think being a year older when school finishes certainly helps. All the best with your decision.

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Maria

I love reading your thoughts on different parenting topics especially since I am a first time mom with a daughter who just 18months yesterday. I am in total agreement with the idea of play but not sure how to make that fit with my world of 2 parents needing to work and a system that wants to “prepare” our children. Pre-K, kindergarden preparedness, kindergarden. If money wasn’t an option I would keep her out of school that is too structured too early in my opinion but what do those of us who need to send them to school do???

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Hey Sigmund

Maria I completely understand how hard it can be when 2 parents work. Don’t underestimate the value of incidental play. By this, I mean the time that you are in the car or on a bus or train together, or at the table eating a meal together, or doing housework. Even being with you while you are doing chores can be play for kids, as long as they are free to experiment and imagine and be creative. Your daughter will benefit hugely from the interaction with you, the role-playing and the imitation. These are all the vital elements of play. The ideas in the article are all things you can do while you’re doing other things – getting the groceries, bath-time. On top of this, your daughter will be learning through play time at school. Even though it may be more structured, it is during this play that she will be learning vital social and emotional skills. Any time you can give her that is unstructured, unplugged, and where she is free to explore and experiment with the world around her will be great for her. One of the best things you can do is to make sure that your daughter isn’t overscheduled with lessons and activities outside of school time, and that she doesn’t spend too much time plugged into electrical devices or the tv. It can be so tempting to fill spare time with ‘something’, but it’s in the completely free time that the magic happens.

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kim

thank you for this article on play..I just sat down to write my own but checked in on my emails first- to find your article. Just what I was thinking!!
Ive been away the past week with my granddaughter and daughter and it has taken me back to my years as a kindergartener. Oh how I remember my learnings about the importance of play. I believe it is important for all of us regardless of age…it looks different as adults but its important for us too.The old adage all work adn no play makes for a dull boy rings very true

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katharine

Great article! It reminds me that what we allow our children to learn ( as opposed to teach them) today will create out world tomorrow. Our reduced sense of social responsibility on a world wide scale will have unintended consequences for our world tomorrow. I think of the child refugees, of child abuse, of the insularity of moden life and think you have written a very thought provoking article. Thankyou.

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Anxiety has a way of demanding ALL of the attention. It shifts the focus to what feels scary, or too big, or impossible, or what needs to be avoided, or what feels bad, or what our kiddos can’t do. As the grown ups who love them, we know they are capable of greatness, even if that greatness is made up of lots of tiny steps, (as great things tend to be).
Physical activity is the natural end to the fight or flight response (which is where the physical feelings of an anxiety attack come from). Walking will help to burn the adrenalin and neurochemicals that have surged the body to prepare it for flight or fight, and which are causing the physical symptoms (racy heart, feeling sick, sweaty, short breaths, dry mouth, trembly or tense in the limbs etc). As well as this, the rhythm of walking will help to calm their anxious amygdala. Brains love rhythm, and walking is a way to give them this. 
⠀⠀
Try to help your young one access their steady breaths while walking, but it is very likely that they will only be able to do this if they’ve practised outside of an anxiety attack. During anxiety, the brain is too busy to try anything unfamiliar. Practising will help to create neural pathways that will make breathing an easier, more accessible response during anxiety. If they aren't able to access strong steady breaths, you might need to do it for them. This will be just as powerful - in the same way they can catch your anxiety, they will also be able to catch your calm. When you are able to assume a strong, calm, steady presence, this will clear the way for your brave ones to do the same.
The more your young one is able to verbalise what their anxiety feels like, the more capacity they will have to identify it, acknowledge it and act more deliberately in response to it. With this level of self-awareness comes an increased ability to manage the feeling when it happens, and less likelihood that the anxiety will hijack their behaviour. 

Now - let’s give their awareness some muscle. If they are experts at what their anxiety feels like, they are also experts at what it takes to be brave. They’ve felt anxiety and they’ve moved through it, maybe not every time - none of us do it every time - maybe not even most times, but enough times to know what it takes and how it feels when they do. Maybe it was that time they walked into school when everything in them was wanting to walk away. Maybe that time they went in for goal, or down the water slide, or did the presentation in front of the class. Maybe that time they spoke their own order at the restaurant, or did the driving test, or told you there would be alcohol at the party. Those times matter, because they show them they can move through anxiety towards brave. They might also taken for granted by your young one, or written off as not counting as brave - but they do count. They count for everything. They are evidence that they can do hard things, even when those things feel bigger than them. 

So let’s expand those times with them and for them. Let’s expand the wisdom that comes with that, and bring their brave into the light as well. ‘What helped you do that?’ ‘What was it like when you did?’ ‘I know everything in you wanted to walk away, but you didn’t. Being brave isn’t about doing things easily. It’s about doing those hard things even when they feel bigger than us. I see you doing that all the time. It doesn’t matter that you don’t do them every time -none of us are brave every time- but you have so much courage in you my love, even when anxiety is making you feel otherwise.’

Let them also know that you feel like this too sometimes. It will help them see that anxiety happens to all of us, and that even though it tells a deficiency story, it is just a story and one they can change the ending of.
During adolescence, our teens are more likely to pay attention to the positives of a situation over the negatives. This can be a great thing. The courage that comes from this will help them try new things, explore their independence, and learn the things they need to learn to be happy, healthy adults. But it can also land them in bucketloads of trouble. 

Here’s the thing. Our teens don’t want to do the wrong thing and they don’t want to go behind our backs, but they also don’t want to be controlled by us, or have any sense that we might be stifling their way towards independence. The cold truth of it all is that if they want something badly enough, and if they feel as though we are intruding or that we are making arbitrary decisions just because we can, or that we don’t get how important something is to them, they have the will, the smarts and the means to do it with or without or approval. 

So what do we do? Of course we don’t want to say ‘yes’ to everything, so our job becomes one of influence over control. To keep them as safe as we can, rather than saying ‘no’ (which they might ignore anyway) we want to engage their prefrontal cortex (thinking brain) so they can be more considered in their decision making. 

Our teens are very capable of making good decisions, but because the rational, logical, thinking prefrontal cortex won’t be fully online until their 20s (closer to 30 in boys), we need to wake it up and bring it to the decision party whenever we can. 

Do this by first softening the landing:
‘I can see how important this is for you. You really want to be with your friends. I absolutely get that.’
Then, gently bring that thinking brain to the table:
‘It sounds as though there’s so much to love in this for you. I don’t want to get in your way but I need to know you’ve thought about the risks and planned for them. What are some things that could go wrong?’
Then, we really make the prefrontal cortex kick up a gear by engaging its problem solving capacities:
‘What’s the plan if that happens.’
Remember, during adolescence we switch from managers to consultants. Assume a leadership presence, but in a way that is warm, loving, and collaborative.♥️
Big feelings and big behaviour are a call for us to come closer. They won’t always feel like that, but they are. Not ‘closer’ in an intrusive ‘I need you to stop this’ way, but closer in a ‘I’ve got you, I can handle all of you’ kind of way - no judgement, no need for you to be different - I’m just going to make space for this feeling to find its way through. 

Our kids and teens are no different to us. When we have feelings that fill us to overloaded, the last thing we need is someone telling us that it’s not the way to behave, or to calm down, or that we’re unbearable when we’re like this. Nup. What we need, and what they need, is a safe place to find our out breath, to let the energy connected to that feeling move through us and out of us so we can rest. 
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But how? First, don’t take big feelings personally. They aren’t a reflection on you, your parenting, or your child. Big feelings have wisdom contained in them about what’s needed more, or less, or what feels intolerable right now. Sometimes it might be as basic as a sleep or food. Maybe more power, influence, independence, or connection with you. Maybe there’s too much stress and it’s hitting their ceiling and ricocheting off their edges. Like all wisdom, it doesn’t always find a gentle way through. That’s okay, that will come. Our kids can’t learn to manage big feelings, or respect the wisdom embodied in those big feelings if they don’t have experience with big feelings. 
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We also need to make sure we are responding to them in the moment, not a fear or an inherited ‘should’ of our own. These are the messages we swallowed whole at some point - ‘happy kids should never get sad or angry’, ‘kids should always behave,’ ‘I should be able to protect my kids from feeling bad,’ ‘big feelings are bad feelings’, ‘bad behaviour means bad kids, which means bad parents.’ All these shoulds are feisty show ponies that assume more ‘rightness’ than they deserve. They are usually historic, and when we really examine them, they’re also irrelevant.
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Finally, try not to let the symptoms of big feelings disrupt the connection. Then, when calm comes, we will have the influence we need for the conversations that matter.

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