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The Importance of Play

The importance of play is underrated. Kids and adults both need it, as detailed in the Feb/Mar 2009 cover story in Scientific American Mind. The kind of play I’m talking about here is unstructured, creative play. Yes, board, card, and video games have their place as well, but free play is too often getting squeezed out.

Kids have very busy schedules these days. They go from school, to soccer practice, to piano lessons, do their homework, are on the computer, and so on. According to a 2005 paper published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, children’s free play has dropped by 25% from 1981 to 1997. I’m guessing that it has dropped even further between 1997-2009.

Parents have good intentions – we want Johnny to “achieve his potential.” In order to do that, he must stay busy and active, right? Play, from this perspective, can be viewed as time wasted.

Just hold on a second though. Studies are finding that the social, emotional, and cognitive development of animals and humans are disrupted when they are deprived of free play. Children gain numerous benefits from free play. For instance, researchers have discovered that children use more sophisticated language with one another when involved in free play than they do in their typical interactions with adults. By its very nature, creative play necessitates that children use language in complex ways to communicate what is going on their imaginative play (after all, the partner can’t see what the imaginary dragon looks like).

Imaginative play also fosters creative thinking as well. Children learn critical social skills from free play. For example, they must develop and negotiate rules and boundaries. They want to the play to keep going with one another, so there’s a little “push-pull” that must be successfully resolved among playmates. Children learn to not cross certain lines with their peers, how to mend the fences when they do, and how to ensure that they don’t keep transgressing negotiated boundaries.

Social skills are what help us to get along well with others in life. And, as stated in other blogs, our connections with others are one of the main keys to our happiness in life. To the extent that we get along well with others, we tend to be happy. We are not able to build and maintain satisfying social relationships without strong social skills.

Other research shows that play promotes the neural development in higher areas of brain functioning. The very nature of play appears to stimulate the growth of new neurons. Along these lines, there is research that suggests that play may make kids smarter. Doesn’t sound too much like a waste of time to me!

Other research findings on free play indicate that it can:

  • Reduce stress in anxious children
  • Improve problem solving skills
  • Improve language skills
  • Foster creativity and cognitive flexibility

It is important to note, as we all have seen, that animals play too. Thus, play is part of our ancestry and evolutionary development. It is here for a reason.

So, be sure that your children are not so busy that they don’t have time or opportunities for free, unstructured play. They will benefit from it, as will you.

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