Why Play is So Very Important for Kids

They say playing is the work of children—and it’s true! Play is how children learn about the world, themselves and each other. It’s as much a part of healthy development as eating vegetables, reading books together and getting a good night’s sleep. Even the United Nations lists play as one of the basic rights of every child.

There is no right or wrong way to play. It’s anything from sticking a hand in mashed potatoes to playing with video games or staring out a window. It looks different depending on the day and the child; sometimes children play with friends and other times, on their own. Sometimes they may speak aloud and other times, be silent in their heads. Sometimes playing is messy or risky and other times, quiet and relaxed.

There are six reasons play, both unstructured and structured, is important for child development:

1. Building imagination and creativity. During play, kids stretch their imaginations. They create make-believe games or get lost in pretend worlds. Children act out different solutions while boosting their confidence. They make their own rules and learn how to follow or adapt those rules as needed. These are helpful skills for navigating life and developing relationships with others. Symbolic play is the ability to imagine one object as another. For example, a stick, a bucket and pinecones can become a cooking spoon, a pot and yummy ingredients. Symbolic play is an important part of healthy development. It builds skills that children need for future learning and problem solving. It also improves creativity, which contributes to success throughout a person’s life.

2. Fostering cognitive growth. What does fostering cognitive growth mean? It means that playing is essential to healthy brain development. Unstructured play is the time when kids direct their own playtime. They are not bound by schedules or activities directed by adults. Unstructured play helps a child’s brain develop in positive ways. It strengthens and increases neural connections in the brain. These are the paths in the brain that we use for thinking. Unstructured playtime also helps build and strengthen the prefrontal cortex of the brain. This area influences the way a child learns, solves problems and gains knowledge about their environment.

3. Emotional and behavioral benefits. When adults feel overwhelmed, we retreat into activities that soothe us. We go to the gym, sing karaoke with friends, walk around the neighborhood, weed the garden or play a board game. These activities are more than a distraction. They are a way of bringing play back into our lives and connecting us to the things in life that help ground us. Children are the same, although they need a lot more playtime. Frequent, daily play can help reduce anxiety, stress and irritability. It also helps boost joy and self-esteem.

Adults observing children playing can help them better understand emotions by naming them. For example, “It sounds like you are nervous about going to school tomorrow”. Listening and asking questions shows kids that adults care. It communicates that their feelings and experiences are important. Play is an excellent teacher. Through play, children learn how to navigate the world in a way they can understand and process. They explore how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to solve conflicts and to speak up for themselves.

4. Improving literacy. Children are born wired to learn language. Starting from birth, they build language and literacy skills through play and interactions. Babies and toddlers learn new words when adults describe what they see, hear and do. Songs and poems connect syllables to beats. This helps children develop listening skills and learn about the sounds in words. Through playing, kids learn about communication. They get to practice back and forth conversation, even if they can’t speak! Sharing stories in books, orally or in make-believe play, helps them understand who they are and their role within the community. Stories also teach how language works and how narratives are structured.

Toys and games are also useful. Playing with small toys helps build the small muscles in hands. This helps with writing. “I Spy” and concentration games develop abilities for observation and maintaining attention. These skills support reading comprehension by helping children understand and apply what they’re reading. As kids enter school, playing continues to be important. Research shows students pay more attention to their work after an unstructured play break. Play enhances curiosity and a curious mind is ready to learn.

5. Encouraging greater independence. Children often have little power or say over their daily activities. They spend much of their days being told what to do, when to do it and where they have to go. In the world of play, they have the opportunity to set the rules and be the one with power. They can be the leaders and adults can be the ones listening and taking directions. Solitary play is as important as learning how to play with others. It helps children develop a stronger sense of independence. Children comfortable with solitary play also feel more capable of tackling other tasks on their own and figuring out how they fit in. Developing those skills even contributes to future socializing within a group. Children playing alone can learn social cues by observing group interactions from afar. Solitary play allows children to experiment with their own creativity and ideas. When alone, and even bored, children’s brains take up the challenge.

6. Promoting physical fitness. Whether they realize it or not, children’s bodies are wired to be active. Children have a very strong need for physical activity, which is any type of play that gets them moving. It’s part of how they learn to use their bodies and strengthens connections in the brain. It’s also great form of exercise, which promotes fit and healthy children. Regular, active play has positive and far-reaching health effects throughout a child’s life. No matter a child’s abilities, interests and opportunities, physical play helps children:

  • sharpen reflexes;
  • work on movement control;
  • improve gross motor skills;
  • develop greater balance;
  • build strong muscles;
  • improve bone density;
  • increase cardio-vascular function;
  • all while having fun!

The positive effects of playing on young children are far-reaching—influencing their mental, emotional and physical health. The benefits extend to adults as well. Talking about play with children teaches them that adults are invested and respect their play decisions. This fosters better connections between adults and children. In turn, respect, trust and love lay the foundation for the emotional state most conducive to fostering the learning brain.

Allison Green
Boston Tutoring Services

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