“Play is the work of children” is a quote from a famous turn of the century psychologist. I use that phrase a lot when describing how vital play is for a child’s development. From the moment they can reach for an object, play and the exploration of the world become one. Just watch a six month old reach for an object, shake it, transfer it from hand to hand and then put that object in their mouth for further exploration. As the child grows, exploration of the world becomes more complex and we see this as we watch toddlers manipulate objects and watch the joy on their face when they bang two objects together, put puzzle pieces in place or get the circle in the circle hole in a shape sorter.
Play is also how children work through strong feelings such as anxiety . Peek a boo is a perfect example of this. As soon as a nine month old starts worrying about separation from parents, they also begin loving the game of peek-a boo. It starts with mom or dad pulling a blanket over their head and watching the delight on the baby’s face when they pull it off and say “peek-a-boo”. They will do it over and over again, even starting to pull the blanket down them selves, “mommy is gone, mommy is back. As they get older, imaginative play takes over and children will imitate everything they see in the adult world. And to help them overcome feelings of being small and powerless, suddenly a four year old becomes his favorite super hero, with super strength and able to fly.
For school-aged children, play helps them learn self control. A game like Simon Says, for example, teaches kids impulse control. And board games teach them organization and how to follow rules and take turns. Playground games help kids learn negotiation as rules are often changed to fit the situation and kids have to compete in a “child created” hierarchy.
Play helps children at every age , but something is happening now when children reach age five and enter school. Suddenly the time allowed for free play starts to disappear. Playtime is replaced with playdates, often structured by parents. And what happens on a playdate has changed. By this age imaginative free play has too often been replaced by video and computer games. In school, recess used to be a time of free play with kids learning how to navigate the playground games with rules set by the kids themselves. But now schools have cut down on recess time because of fears of liability and the need to increase time for academics. After school used to be a time of neighborhood play with kids of all ages engaged in pretend and pick up games. But now many parents do not let their children play outside without supervision because of fear for their safety.
Another factor is parents feeling pressure to help children achieve academic and athletic success. Parents fear that if they do not start lessons in sports or other activities at a very young age, their children will have a disadvantage as they grow. So kids are enrolled in ice skating classes and soccer teams at very young ages. This has replaced the free unstructured play time that kids used to have.
3.Talk about the movement to bring play back for children.
Many specialists are warning parents about the dangers of “play deficit”. Depriving children of free imaginative play as they grow may have harmful effects on their growth and development. The experts are saying that most of the social and intellectual skills one needs to succeed in life and work are first developed through childhood play. Children need child centered unstructured imaginative play- time. This is play that does not involve electronics and computers, X boxes, and iPads. It’s play that puts the child in charge of what happens. As soon as parents impose the rules, it becomes “parent play”.
4. What can parents do to help their children have more time for play?
Make a commitment to play. Whatever the age of your child, think about how they spend their free time. If you have small children, remove the electronics and unplug their play: look for toys like blocks, legos, dress up, pretend kitchens and tea sets. And avoid toys that are marketed to promote movies and TV shows. Look for toys without a story, ones that a child can impose their imagination on and can create their own stories.Take a look at your children’s schedules. Is there enough time for free play. Are all those classes necessary for an eight year old? Ask your kids what they really enjoy doing.
Create a fun room for play that other kids will like to come and play in. Make it safe, but adult free. Learn to tolerate mess. Making forts out of furniture cushions is messy, but very creative. Look at your backyard. Make it play friendly. Take some trips to the park with other parents. Let the kids play by themselves. They need to create the rules. Advocate for recess time in schools. Connect with other parents or local advocates like your pediatrician who may feel the same way about the need for exercise as well as play during the school day. Most importantly, get out and play with your child. Play is fun for all ages!