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

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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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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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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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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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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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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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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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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