One morning when I was headed to work, my three year old was busy building train tracks. I knelt to say goodbye to him, and in a serious tone he told me, “I’m doing important work too, my work is play.”
Why Play Matters
Play is the way children synthesize new information, how they process difficult experiences, and how they make sense of their emotions. Research confirms that play improves classroom focus, decreases disruptive behaviors, and is correlated with higher scores in reading and math. Play also enhances creativity, problem solving, social skills, and emotional intelligence. As researcher Dr. Sergio Pellis states, “The experience of play changes the connections of the neurons at the front end of your brain...And without play experience, those neurons aren't changed.” In other words, play is necessary in developing self-regulation and reasoning. Play, including silly songs and free play, may also be crucial in the development of language . Play, in part, is also how children develop empathy. As Jill Vialet wrote for the Play Works blog, “Play matters for a whole host of reasons, but perhaps most relevant for these current times, play matters because it provides an experiential basis for learning to love one another, even when we can’t agree. Even when we don’t really like one another. Play teaches us how to get along.” Play can also be an effective way for children to express themselves. Virginia Axline, the pioneering play therapist and author of the groundbreaking
book Dibs in Search of Self, states, “His free play is an expression of what he wants to do...when he plays freely and without direction, he is expressing his personality (1).
If we know that play is essential to proper development and quite possibly one of the most crucial aspects of childhood, how can we support our children in play? The easy answer is to stand back and let it happen. Children are naturally creative and curious, and they will play given the time and opportunity. However, there are a few things to keep in mind. Young children don’t require many supplies, but simple, open-ended toys may be useful. You’ll be hard pressed to find a young child who doesn’t enjoy sand play. A large sandbox is great if you have the room, but even a bin or small container filled with sand and a few toys will offer hours of creative play. Less is more. When my son’s room is stuffed with interactive toys, he often becomes overstimulated and unable to rely on his own imagination to drive his play. Kim John Payne, author of Simplicity Parenting (3) agrees. She states that an excess of flashy toys may take the place of a child’s innate creativity.
Another way we can support play is by joining in! In Playful Parenting (2), Dr. Lawrence Cohen encourages parents to play with their children, emphasizing that it enables us to better understand feelings and thoughts our children can't always verbalize. It also gives us the opportunity to help our children process fears and anxieties. I remember when my son went through a phase of intense fear of monsters. Multiple times he attempted to engage me in play in which I was afraid of a monster and he destroyed it for me. At first I was insistent that I wouldn’t play out this scenario out of concern that doing so would legitimize his fear. Through my son’s sheer will to process his fear of monsters, I finally understood that what he felt was valid and very real regardless of my response. When I finally cooperated with his role play, he was able to act out conquering that fear. So often we see children as having behavioral issues that need to be punished rather than a struggling child who needs a safe place to process tough feelings with us through play. With empathy and insight, we can allow our children to direct us through playful healing, learning, and connecting.
Gary Landreth, a leader in play therapy, has a list of “Principles for Relationships with Children” he uses in his practice which can be useful for parents, therapists, teachers, and caregivers alike:
I know so little about the complex intricacies of childhood. Therefore, I will allow children to teach me.
It feels good to be an authority, to provide answers. Therefore, I will need to work hard to protect children from me!
I have learned most of what I know from experiencing. Therefore, I will allow children to experience.
I experience fear when I am vulnerable. Therefore, I will with kindness, gentleness, and tenderness touch the inner world of the vulnerable child.
Excerpt from Play Therapy: The Art of the Relationships pages 5-7(4).
Landreth also states, “The child-centered philosophy considers play essential to children’s healthy development. Play gives concrete form and expression to children’s world.” Child-centered play is not constructed or driven by adults; when play is directed by the child, she feels empowered and free to express herself. Axline (1) explains that by following the child’s lead in play, we communicate acceptance and trust. When we take the lead, we are communicating that our child isn’t playing “right” and thus needs our help. Child-directed play allows for fluidity and absolute creativity.
Blogger and author Janet Lansbury encourages parents to avoid jumping in to solve problems. Children learn by trying. When we continually “save” them by suggesting trying a puzzle piece in the correct spot or a better strategy for stacking blocks, we rob them of the opportunity to learn and practice skills which will later develop into critical thinking. Lansbury also discourages parents from “cheerleading” our children’s play. She explains that cheerleading is often a reflection of how the parent feels about her child’s potential for failure and less for the sake of the child. Instead, Lansbury encourages parents to comment neutrally on what they observe happening and use phrases like, “You are working hard on that. It’s really difficult."
In a culture where children are overscheduled and overstimulated, open play is one of the greatest gifts we can grant small children. While there are certainly times when structure is needed, we can give ourselves permission to let our children play freely and with abandon secure in the knowledge that we are facilitating emotional, academic, and cognitive development.
Axline, V.M. (1986). Dibs in Search of Self. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.
Cohen, L.J. (2001). Playful Parenting. New York, NY: Ballantine Books
John Payne, K. & Ross, L.M. (2010). Simplicity Parenting. New York: NY: Ballantine Books
Landreth, G.L. (2002). Play Therapy: The Art of the Relationship, Second Edition. New York, NY: Brunner-Routledge.