Play is an incredible teacher, it’s the language of children, and it’s FUN!
Some of my best childhood memories are times we left the house in the morning to play with friends and didn’t come home until we were hungry, or it was dark. Actually, we often played night games so play resumed when it got dark. The adventures we had sneaking under a fence to get closer to some horses (and then being chased, thinking we wouldn’t make it back out in time), playing in the muddy creek, riding our bikes to Ginny May’s Donuts or Lewis Eastgate for ice cream cones. When it was too cold to be outside (I grew up in Minnesota), we’d make blanket forts, read, take our Barbies camping, make up games or play board games.
I never thought about my play as learning and development; it was just fun. But we were left on our own to make group decisions about how we would spend our time, having to learn independence, teamwork, negotiation and influence skills. We had to solve problems and resolve conflicts on our own. We had to find ways to not be bored. If we got lost, we had to find our way home – with no phones or GPS. If we got hurt, we had to figure out how to get help. We were kids. Outside of school and a few chores, our job was to play. Our reality today…“Children’s freedom to play and explore on their own, independent of direct adult guidance and direction, has declined greatly.” (Psychology Today).
“Play is essential to optimal child development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children,” according to an American Academy of Pediatrics report. The report discusses the cognitive and developmental advantages of toys that give children opportunities for imagination and invention and, above all, toys that encourage play that brings parents and children together.
7 Ways Play Develops Us:
- Imagination, Curiosity, Creativity
- Emotional Regulation*
- Socialization, Collaboration, Empathy*
- Conflict Resolution, Problem-Solving*
- Decision-making, Negotiation*
- Connection between choices and consequences
Fun fact: the skills above with an * are represented on the World Economic Forum’s list of some of the highest demand most needed workforce skills for future success (read, my last blog post). Why are these skills becoming more important? They are things robots can’t do (at least not yet). And what kind of person do you want to work for?
Studies show that kids are playing a lot less these days. And much of today’s play is scheduled or inside. Play is also becoming much more digital. My son loves to “get together with his friends” to play video games. He doesn’t even have to leave the house or invite anyone over to hang out with them. It’s becoming easier and easier to connect with friends digitally, not just in conversation but also in play. Some scheduled and digital play is probably fine for most kids who are comfortable socially connecting with others, in person, regularly. For kids that experience social discomfort or worry, as I did growing up, this can make it easier to hide from or avoid social human connection that may be uncomfortable but is so crucial for happiness and well-being and development.
So, what to do? Here are some ideas I’ve come across from a variety of sources:
- Offer open-ended toys. These are toys and games that can be used in more than one way, encouraging imagination and creativity. (Hint: Connection Zoo is one of these games.)
- Give your kids items laying around the house and challenge them to create something. This can be fun for your artist and your engineer.
- Get them outside. Teach them the neighborhood games you used to play outside or send them on a scavenger hunt.
- Cut back on scheduled activities. Allow for time in the day that your kids need to figure out for themselves how to spend their time. Even more challenging, minimize their screen time so they need to find screen-free ways to play.
- Be their role model. Engage in your own creative, screen-free play with friends and with your kids.
We must prioritize play not just because it builds important skills, but also because it creates some of our best memories. Let’s go make memories!