From the womb, children are wired to learn and grow through play. When their playtime is restricted to unhealthy levels, they miss opportunities to develop valuable motor skills, practice emotional management and develop cognitive function. Play is an essential foundation for all later life skills.
Children naturally engage in various kinds of play, including independent, structured and physical play. As they grow, their play changes to reflect and support their level of development. To help your children thrive, it’s important to be intentional about giving your children plenty of time to play.
The Work of Play
From a young age, children use play to explore their surroundings. Babies grab their feet, two-year-olds play pretend and at four years old, children start playing cooperatively. At each stage of their development, kids rely on their senses and imaginations to learn about their environment and themselves.
A growing bulk of research suggests that children who spend a lot of time playing when they are young grow up to be smart, emotionally well-adjusted and happy. In addition, play supports physical movement that develops coordination and important motor skills. During play, children process emotions, build social bonds and reduce stress levels.
Several studies have suggested that adequate, intentional playtime can even reduce the symptoms of ADHD by improving kids’ focus and emotional health. Therapists have used games like Simon Says and Freeze Dancing to help preschoolers exercise their bodies and improve their attention spans.
Although modern society tends to view work and play as opposites, they are the same thing during childhood. When children are playing, their brains are working to make neural connections and take in new ideas. Play also helps kids develop coordination and physical fitness as they grow.
Types of Play
There are many different types of childhood play. Structured games like Simon Says are only one of many categories – others include independent play, free play, physical play and creative play. Different kinds of play stimulate different parts of the brain and equip kids to develop new skills as they grow.
As children get older, they tend to move from solo play to interacting with others in group games. For example, two-year-olds tend to play separate games in close proximity to each other. Just a few years later, kids will engage enthusiastically in group games like tag or playing house.
Free play is very important for helping kids develop initiative and confidence in themselves. During structured games like hide-and-seek, children have to follow rules and listen to someone in charge. Free play gives children space to create their own games and be in charge of their own rules.
Physical play gets kids moving and includes activities like running, hopping or skipping rope. During constructive play, children design and build things with their hands. When children are young, almost everything they naturally do can be called play.
A Lack of Play
In some parts of the world, children start working at a young age and miss the benefits of having a play-filled childhood. In countries without child labor, many families are too busy with work and social engagements to schedule playtime for their young children.
For example, in America, many children are losing valuable playtime in exchange for early academic work at rigorous preschools. Over the long run, an early start to academic work can actually decrease children’s intelligence as well as their social and emotional development.
Over the last 50 years, parents have also become more risk-averse, worrying that outdoor play will lead to disease or injury for their kids. The truth is quite the opposite – time outside strengthens children’s immune systems and motor skills, equipping them to be safer and stronger for the rest of their lives.
Because play is so essential to childhood development, a lack of play is a contributing factor to many problems children are dealing with today. Developmental delays, ADHD, obesity and mental health issues are all improved when children are given the time they need for quality play.
How to Prioritize Play
Parents may be wondering how much playtime is enough. However, a better question is whether children can play too much. For the first six to seven years of a child’s life, play is the most developmentally beneficial way for them to spend their time.
Of course, children also need to learn responsibility and time-management skills. Prioritizing play doesn’t mean that kids shouldn’t help with chores or that learning activities are bad for them. However, children who work at playing when they’re young will be better prepared for schooling and adult responsibilities later.
One of the best ways to prioritize play for your children is to choose a slower lifestyle. Playtime doesn’t have to be an organized event like going to the zoo – simply having free time will give kids space to play pretend, build things, explore nature and imagine what they want to be when they grow up.
Spending time playing with your kids is a fun way to let loose yourself. Very young children will only want to play near you, but older kids will enjoy having you enter their imaginative worlds and join into group games of tag and hide-and-seek. Although it’s not necessary for adult development, playtime will increase your happiness.
After food, shelter and parental care, what your kids need most is play. Research shows that playtime builds a lifelong foundation for mental, social and emotional development. Children who engage in play grow into creative and productive adults.
You can support your child’s development by learning more about the stages of play and simplifying your schedule to make room for playtime. Whether they’re making paper dolls, climbing trees at a local park or playing on a swing set, kids are developing the skills they need for a happy and successful future.