The serious role of play
- The playground is one of the most important ‘classrooms’ for life’s skills
As we place more importance on academics and hard skills, play gets pushed further down the list of important activities. Schools are cutting recess time, kids are over-scheduled, and boredom is non-existent with electronic devices becoming common babysitters. What this means is that free play – unstructured and unplanned, requiring imagination, participation, and compromise – is less a part of our children’s day-to-day lives.
Education is important for children’s development in many ways. But school does not provide everything a child needs to become well rounded and well adjusted. One result of too little play is that children develop social and academic anxiety at younger ages. Without child-led free play, kids do not get the chance to develop the social and emotional skills necessary for daily life.
How do we define play? It is a joyful activity that provides recreation rather than a serious purpose or work. It is usually child-directed and child-chosen, and is imaginative and leaves room for rules to be created and imposed by those taking part. Play gives children the chance to learn to negotiate, establish rules, compromise and recreate typical social situations in a safe and controlled environment.
Kicking a ball with friends, for example, allows kids to come together to set, keep and enforce rules, divide themselves into even teams, create a game plan and work together towards a shared goal, all while having to communicate. These skills – cohesion, cooperation, mutual aid as well as correction and reconciliation – are vital for kids to be successful in school and later at work and in relationships.
Play has other benefits as well. It lowers stress, and helps build muscle control and coordination. Play can be a bonding experience, helping kids learn how to make friends and keep them. Free play also provides a space for cognitive and creative expression. Planning, problem solving, and creativity are the kinds of soft skills big companies look for in their employees – all of which can be cultivated by encouraging free play.
It may come as a surprise to some that frequent opportunities for free play have been found to help kids do better academically. Kids pay better attention to lessons after recess when they have been free to choose their activities. It is important to note that physical education class or team sports are not substitutes for free play. These activities are important and have many benefits, but they are often adult led and highly structured. Free play springs completely from the minds of children.
The benefits of play are far-reaching, and have been linked to greater development of language skills, improved maths skills, and the very important task of teaching kids to regulate their emotions.
Aside from what play helps to develop, there is also what it helps prevent. Studies into play deprivation have shown children without adequate playtime have a higher likelihood of developing mental health difficulties, abnormal behaviour and even a higher chance of criminal behaviour.
As we consider planning our children’s time, let’s not forget to set aside ample time for them to sort rocks, have a tea party or run around a playground with friends. These activities will promote healthy growth in your child and teach them the skills to help them grow into happy, healthy adults.