Most parents know – at least on some level – that play is beneficial for kids. But do we REALLY understand just how important it is for their development? From recent research (and experience as a mom), here are 10 things parents need to know about the importance of play.
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What comes to your mind when you hear the word “play”? Is it something that’s “just for fun”? A luxury that’s nice if you have the time? A reward for working hard? A normal, yet not-quite-necessary part of childhood?
Do you see it as essential for your kids’ development? If not, you should.
I recently dove deep into the subject of play – researching the purpose and importance of it – and the treasure I unearthed was fascinating. As it turns out, play is not just fun, or even merely good, for kids – it’s essential for healthy childhood development. In fact, National Institute for Play founder, Stuart Brown, likens a lack of it to malnutrition!
Intrigued? Let me share some of what I’ve learned about the importance of play for kids.
10 Things Parents Need to Know About the Importance of Play
Most parents know – at least on some level – that play is beneficial for kids. But do we really understand just how important it is for their development? I’m not sure we do, because if we did, we would be a lot more intentional about protecting and promoting it. From my recent research (and experience as a mom), here are 10 things parents need to know about the importance of play.
1. Play IS productive
Most of us grow up treasuring our playtime, but somewhere on the road to adulthood, our attitude about it changes. As the pressure mounts to perform and produce, we begin to see play as, well… a bit pointless. And (unfortunately) we tend to push that perspective onto our kids.
But play is not pointless. It’s not silly, it’s not a waste of time, and it’s not just a way to burn off energy so the “real” work can begin. It’s not the antithesis of productivity – play (in moderation, of course) actually IS productive.
Play is so good – necessary, even! – for kids’ development. Here are just some of the many benefits of play.
- Builds imagination and creativity.
- Fosters cognitive growth.
- Supports many different kinds of learning. (More on that below!)
- Encourages greater independence.
- Promotes physical fitness.
- Reduces stress and anxiety.
Recommended Post: The Best STEM Toys & Activities for Kids
2. Play supports learning
For some reason, we’ve come to see play as something to tolerate until the “real” learning can begin. It’s the warm-up before the big game, the opener to the headlining act. But play isn’t less valuable than “serious” educational methods. Play is often how kids learn best!
Through play, kids develop:
- Cognitive skills – problem solving, resourcefulness, logic, strategy, analytical thinking
- Emotional skills – emotional regulation, courage, resilience, resolving uncertainty
- Social skills – empathy, cooperation, collaboration, boundaries, conflict resolution
- Literacy skills – reading and writing (such as when creating pretend signs, menus, letters, etc.)
- Physical abilities – gross motor skills such as running or throwing, and fine motor skills such as handling blocks or tying bows
- New vocabulary – hearing and saying words they need to express themselves and design/carry out their play
- And more!
Kids often learn better through play than through formal, structured instruction for several reasons. One, play presents low-stress, low-risk opportunities to attempt new tasks and learn from mistakes. Two, play engages several different parts of the brain at once, which is always better for learning. Three, it gives kids a chance to practice and build on what they’ve learned. Four, it leads to exploration and experimentation, which helps kids learn first-hand, rather than always relying on second-hand information.
Basically, play is like the “lab” of life for kids where they can test out and reinforce what they’ve learned!
3. Play is not the opposite of work
“Get your work done, and then you can play.” How many times have we heard – and even said! – something to this effect? But these kinds of statements actually create a false dichotomy between work and play. They’re not mutually exclusive – they can go together!
Play doesn’t (necessarily) detract from work. Quite the opposite, in fact! Play can bolster work by infusing it with energy, joy, and meaning. It can help us think more positively about our work and motivate us to keep going when it gets hard. When the work involves other people, it can even foster connection and bonding.
Think about it: don’t you like to use a little bit of play to make your work more enjoyable (eg. listening to music, podcasts, or audiobooks)? So then, why wouldn’t we allow, and even encourage, our kids to do the same?
“The opposite of play is not work. The opposite of play is depression.” — Stuart Brown, Play
4. All play is not created equal
As adults, we tend to look at play as one big category of activity. All play is the same, right? Well, actually… no! There are different types of play, including:
- Fantasy/imaginative play
- Constructive play
- Games with rules
- Rough and tumble play
There are also different kinds of play personalities. In his bestselling book Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, Stuart Brown describes the following eight play personality types:
- The joker
- The kinesthete
- The explorer
- The competitor
- The director
- The collector
- The artist/creator
- The storyteller
Why does this matter? Familiarizing ourselves with different types of play can be helpful for parents so we can identify which types our kids naturally gravitate towards, and which types may require extra support. Knowing our kids’ play personalities can help us guide them toward and create plenty of opportunities for play that fits their unique needs.
5. Rough and tumble play is good for kids
Rough and tumble play makes most adults nervous. I get it! I have three kids who are constantly wrestling and play-fighting, and I had to learn to keep myself from squelching it. Because while it’s easy to get concerned over rough and tumble play, there are actually several benefits!
Roughhousing is not only good for kids’ physical development, it’s important for their cognitive and social development, as well. When kids engage in this kind of play, they learn how to read subtle social cues, navigate personal boundaries, develop empathy, and resolve conflict. They also learn how to manage their own emotions, such as fear and anger.
“A lack of experience with rough-and-tumble play hampers the normal give-and-take necessary for social mastery, and has been linked to poor control of violent impulses later in life.” – Stuart Brown, Play
Of course, there are times when it gets out of hand and intervention becomes necessary. But as much as possible, it’s best to allow kids to navigate those boundaries, themselves, and regulate their own play.
**This information came from the book Purposeful Play, by Kristine Mraz, Alison Porcelli, and Cheryl Tyler, and was enlightening to me. It completely changed the way I viewed rough and tumble play!
6. Play does not have to be structured
I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: our homes are not cruise ships, and you are not your kids’ events coordinator. You don’t need to plan out all of their play!
This is so important for parents (especially moms) to understand for two reasons. First of all, it relieves us of SO MUCH stress and pressure. Not having to come up with a dozen activities a day removes an enormous load from our shoulders (and our to-do list).
Secondly, it’s actually better for our kids when we don’t dictate all their play. You might be surprised to learn that much of kids’ free play shouldn’t be structured!
Unstructured free play:
- Gives kids more freedom to explore, experiment, and discover.
- Allows them to think for themselves and use their imagination.
- Provides more opportunities to follow their own instincts and ideas, practice risk-management and resilience, and work out conflicts with their peers.
7. You may need to encourage it
While you don’t need to structure your kids’ play, you might need to help it along. Most kids naturally gravitate to play. Some kids, however – whether because of their personality, their background, or other factors – have a harder time with it. They may not know how to play, they may not feel comfortable with play, or they may struggle to give themselves permission to play!
If you have a child like this, you might need to encourage and guide them. How? Here are a few ways to support kids’ play:
- Talk about it
- Validate their efforts
- Teach and practice the skills involved
- Give them plenty of time and opportunities to play
- Model play, yourself (this is so important, and we’ll talk about it more later!)
8. You need to make time and space for play
Hopefully by now, I’ve convinced you of the importance and necessity of play. (I have, right??) As with anything, though, knowing we should do something doesn’t automatically guarantee we will do it. The daily demands of family life can get crazy quickly, which means we need to be intentional about carving out time – and space – for play.
Here are some practical ways to do that:
- Put it in your calendar and daily schedule – literally plan for play!
- Designate “tech-free” times during the day
- Cut back on other activities and commitments
- Do chores together as a family and make them fun!
- Allow your kids time to get “bored”
Related Post: 50 Things for Kids to Do When They’re Bored
9. Outdoor play is important
There are tons of things kids can do inside for fun, but there are extra benefits to outdoor play. So, we would be wise to get our kids outside as many days as possible.
I discovered 1000 Hours Outside a few months ago, and I LOVE the ideas and resources they offer on their website and social media channels. I’m not going to log our hours (because I think it would cause me too much stress – which kind of defeats the purpose!), but it has made me more intentional about making sure the kids and I spend more time outside.
15 Delightful Spring Outdoor Activities for Kids
50+ Indoor/Outdoor Independent Play Ideas for Kids
30+ Fun Finds For Kids Who Love Outdoor Adventure
10. You need play, too!
The final thing parents need to know about the importance of play is that we need it, too! We tend to think of play as being something we outgrow, but that is not the case. Adults benefit from play, as well. Play stimulates our minds and improves brain function, boosts creativity, develops and improves social skills, reduces stress, and just plain makes life more enjoyable. Plus, it sets a positive example for our kids!
Here are some ways to add more play into your day:
- Engage in your favorite hobby
- Participate in a sports activity
- Work on a just-for-fun project
- Play a board game
- Color a picture with your kids
- Read a book
- Get silly with your kids
- Have an after-dinner dance party while you clean up
- Listen to an audiobook or podcast
- Play an instrument
- Put together a puzzle
- Draw or paint a picture
- Take a cooking or pottery class
- Make a craft
- Play a game on your phone
It doesn’t matter what it is — and you don’t have to be good at it! The point is to choose something you enjoy and can do with no purpose or agenda beyond the sheer fun of it. It might be hard at first (we’re so ingrained to shun anything that’s not perceived as productive), but it will be good for you – and your whole family!
Learn More About the Importance of Play
Most of the information I shared above about the importance of play came from the following resources:
- Purposeful Play: A Teacher’s Guide to Igniting Deep and Joyful Learning Across the Day, by Kristine Mraz, Alison Porcelli, and Cheryl Tyler
- Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, by Stuart Brown
- Raising Lifelong Learners: A Parent’s Guide, by Lucy Calkins
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Share your thoughts!