Kids need to play – for Real!
Unstructured, child-driven play is the work of childhood, and has so many crucial developmental benefits. Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination and emotional strength, as well as fine motor, physical and cognitive skills.
Children engage in different types of play through childhood. Each type of play is important in promoting and strengthening different areas of development, and children need a balance of these to gain the benefits each one offers.
Physical activity and ‘running around’, being active, builds muscles, endurance and strength, and is associated with better cognitive and academic outcomes than those children who are less physically active. Children also need a dose of ‘risky’ play such as climbing and exploring, which enables them to problem-solve and get to grips with their own physical capabilities.
Object play with a purpose or outcome such as posting toys, shape sorters, stacking rings, and later on puzzles and constructive activities such as Lego, are strongly associated with building visual-perceptual and spatial skills (how objects relate to each-other, and fit together), which in turn is associated with problem-solving and mathematical ability at later stages of development.
Playing with objects and toys which require manipulation also develops important fine motor skills, as well as learning how to persevere when things don’t work out the first time, or the construction breaks. It is crucial for children to experience these play interactions in a 3D format, rather than 2D situations such as doing puzzles on a device. 3D play demands far more from a visuospatial and fine motor point of view – doing activities in 2D does not engage these skills to the same extent. Texture, temperature, weight and shape of objects can only be explored in a 3D context, and children need to experience all of these from a sensory point of view.
Pretend play is another crucial area in child development, and aside from developing a child’s creativity and imagination, this type of play is most strongly associated with verbal skills. Children who engage in high quality child-directed pretend play show superior cognitive, social and academic ability in later years. Children often use pretend play to act out more adult situations or copy scenarios they have seen, which is important in terms of practice of social situations, as well as for emotional processing.
Board games have so many important benefits, the most obvious one being time spent with family in an unplugged, relaxed and communicative way. They teach children how to understand and follow rules, how to work as a team, and how to deal with losing appropriately. Strategic and planning skills are engaged during these games, and they have been shown to decrease stress and anxiety in children due to the social interaction they promote.
In our busy lives, with lots of activities scheduled, and many other options such as screens to pass the time, this crucial play aspect of our children’s development is often overlooked. What young children need most is time to play in all the above ways, and most of all in child-directed ways.
Let your children become ‘bored’ every now and then, and you’ll be amazed at what they come up with to entertain themselves (and often you too!) – and in doing so will be gaining so much more developmentally as well!
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Whitebread D 2012 The Importance of Play: A Report on the value of children’s play with a series of policy recommendations. University of Cambridge.
Yogman M, Garner A, Hutchinson J, Hirsh-Pasek K, Golinkoff R 2018 The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children. Pediatrics 142 (3): :e20182058