One of the most important gifts we can give our kids is time to play, both as a family and on their own. Finding time to play with kids can be a challenge if you are working, managing a household and meeting the many day-to-day challenges of getting things done. But play isn’t optional. It’s essential.
Play is considered so important to child development that it has been recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right of every child. Play — or free, unstructured time in the case of older children and adolescents — is essential to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth. Play as a family weaves the ties of love and connection that bind family members together.
- Play is needed for healthy brain development.75 percent of the brain develops after a baby is born, in the years between birth and the early 20s. Childhood play stimulates the brain to make connections between nerve cells. This is what helps a child develop both gross motor skills (walking, running, jumping, coordination) and fine motor skills (writing, manipulating small tools, detailed hand work). Play during the teen years and into adulthood helps the brain develop even more connectivity, especially in the frontal lobe which is the center for planning and making good decisions.
- Pretend play stimulates your child’s imagination and creativity.Studies have shown that kids who are encouraged to use their imagination are more creative in their adult life. Although artistic expression certainly is important, creativity isn’t limited to the arts. Creativity also helps people find new and innovative ways to do things and to invent new products that make our lives more productive, easier, or more entertaining. It’s the ability to “make believe” that can take people’s minds to places where no one has gone before.
- Play develops the brain’s executive function.Executive function refers to the mental skills that allow us to manage time and attention, to plan and organize, to remember details, and to decide what is and isn’t appropriate to say and do in a given situation. It’s also what helps growing children learn to master their emotions and to use past experiences to understand what to do in the present. These are the skills that are central to self-control and self-discipline. Kids who have a well-developed executive function do well in school, get along well with others, and make good decisions. Make believe play gives the frontal lobe of the brain, the center of executive function, a workout.
- Play develops a child’s “theory of mind.”“Theory of mind” is the ability to walk in another’s shoes. Kids who play lots of “let’s pretend” learn to figure out what their various characters would think about and do. Engaging in pretend games with others requires understanding playmates’ thoughts and feelings. A well-developed theory of mind increases a child’s tolerance and compassion for other people and increases their ability to play and work well with others.
Physical skills, emotional regulation, flexible thinking, the ability to get along with others and the confidence to try new things and think outside the box are all keys to being successful in life. So what can parents do to ensure their children develop these important skills?
- Encourage free play.I love the notion of “free.” It means both “unstructured” and “with no cost.” Both are essential for our growing kids.
Yes, it’s important to provide kids with experiences that teach them new skills and how to work and play in a team. Whether a kid participates in soccer, the orchestra, a dance team or any other organized activity, he will learn how to cooperate with a group goal and will develop physically and mentally.
But it’s equally important not to get so caught up in providing so many structured activities that our children don’t have time to just hang out with other kids and figure out for themselves what to do with their time. Kids who are too involved in organized sports, classes and activities can end up not knowing how to entertain themselves. Kids who are kept occupied every minute don’t have the time to flex their imagination muscles.
Further, when the adults provide all the ideas for leisure time and set all the rules, kids are deprived of learning important social skills. Free play gives kids the chance to learn to work with others and to make compromises. After all, a kid can’t pretend to be a superhero without people to save. He can’t learn to take turns if there isn’t another kid who wants to be the hero too. If she wants other people to play with, she has to learn how to go along with others’ ideas and to get along with the gang.
- Think before you buy.Free play comes for free. Resist the temptation to buy the latest video game, construction toy or costumes. Kids who don’t have ready-made props for their play learn to improvise. Boxes and sofa cushions can become a fort. A superhero cape can be made out of a pillowcase. Dollhouse furniture can be created out of bottle caps and odds and ends from around the house. Kids who are encouraged to be creative by using what’s available instead of what’s in the store become more creative.
- Play with your kids.Not so finally, play helps connect family members. When everyone in the family is occupied with their own personal screen for entertainment, they don’t form the bonds with each other that come from enjoying time together. When everyone in the family spends some playtime laughing, giggling, and enjoying some spontaneous play, everyone feels good about themselves and everyone else.
Parents who let their children direct the playtime learn much about their world. They can also provide some gentle guidance about positive behavior and problem-solving, if necessary, as the pretend game unfolds. Board games help older kids learn how to take turns, follow rules and be both polite winners and gracious losers. Time around the game board promotes conversation and cooperation — and maybe some friendly competition. Best of all, when families play together, they tend to be more supportive of each other and more interested in each other’s lives.
So shut down the screens for an hour or two after dinner a few times a week. Find that Chutes and Ladders game or that deck of cards that’s at the bottom of the toy box. Throw a sheet over the table to make a cozy tent. Hand out paper plates and challenge everyone to make an outrageous hat. Play hide and seek with the little ones and charades with the older kids.
Resist the “Do I have to’s” and the protests about limiting screen time. Get into it 100 percent yourself. Make it fun. Make ’em laugh. Soon the kids — and you — will be looking forward to enjoying playing together. It’s an important part of what family is all about.