Think You Know The Importance of Child’s Play?

What do you think of when you think of being a kid on summer vacation?

Remember how exciting it was when school was  finally over for a few months?

photo of diane wagenhalsRemember how great it felt when you no longer had to deal with homework, getting up early, and having to be properly dressed for school?

Do you also remember playing outside with other kids in the neighborhood, making up games, perhaps some form of tag or ball? Or maybe being a member of the local pool and doing a lot of swimming?

How have things changed in the last few decades?

It seems things have changed even more so in the last few years when it comes to what children do for summer vacations.

Many go off to camps where there is a lot of play but also a lot of formal and structured activities. Many kids spend a huge amount of time in front of screens and much less time being outside in the fresh air or finding ways to create their own fun.

So, I was thinking about kids having almost two months left before they go back to school and wondering…

I wonder what parents are doing (or not doing) to promote healthy experiences for their children during this time when children are not in the classroom. It seems like summer time and play time once went hand-in-hand. Is that still the case? [And yes, I know that working parents do not have the luxury of being at home with their kids.]

It is still important, however, for parents to be creative about finding time for children to have independent, unstructured play, perhaps in the evening while the sunlight is extended. Parents need to ensure a lot of free play in whatever setting their children are in over the summer.

Here’s the key point: it turns out that play is an extremely important part of a child’s life!

According to The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds, from an article on the American Academy of Pediatrics website, author Dr. Kenneth R. Ginsburg shared the following about the benefits of play:

Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. Play is important to healthy brain development.  It is through play that children at a very early age engage and interact in the world around them.

Play allows children to create and explore a world they can master, conquering their fears while practicing adult roles, sometimes in conjunction with other children or adult caregivers. As they master their world, play helps children develop new competencies that lead to enhanced confidence and the resiliency they will need to face future challenges.

Undirected play allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, and to learn self-advocacy skills. When play is allowed to be child driven, children practice decision-making skills, move at their own pace, discover their own areas of interest, and ultimately engage fully in the passions they wish to pursue.”
I remember learning many years ago that play is children’s work.

In the book Balanced and Barefoot, author Angela Hanscom shares many thoughtful perspectives on the value of outdoor play. She states the outdoors offer a perfectly balanced sensory experience for children. Moreover, she provides a wealth of information around the importance of sensory experiences to healthy development—something that ideally is a part of what children experience during the summer.

She also commented on observations made by teachers she interviewed about the play skills of children today compared to children 30 years ago. The teachers said things like, “There is less imaginary play. We used to see a lot of ‘pretend play’ in the past—children creating their own games and worlds on the playground. Now, they gravitate toward play structure or play a game of tag until the whistle blows to go back inside.

“.… It seems like they run around without a purpose. There is little creativity like we observed in the past. It is like they don’t know what to do with themselves. There are a lot of children tattling and coming up to us to seek constant direction and reassurance on what to play or do.” [Page 29]

Hanscom notes that children seem to be losing both their desire and their ability to play. They now seem to prefer structured activities to unstructured ones, seeking adult guidance rather than interacting and learning about leadership and cooperation with their peers.

Hanscom also speculated on the connection between some of these changes in how children play (or don’t play) with the huge increase in childhood depression and anxiety as well as health issues such as obesity.

I think the adults of the world have some work to do around helping children learn or re-learn about play: the spontaneous, unstructured and no-pressure play that invites them to be creative and carefree.

Parents may need to teach children what it means to play, what it means to let their imagination create new worlds, new characters, new stories. Children may need a few tools to help them, like sandboxes, uncomplicated basic toys like animal figures, G.I. Joes, dollhouses, tents, and chalk to draw on driveways and sidewalks.

One of the cool things about this idea is that it invites parents to revisit their own childhood play experiences to recall what was meaningful to them and maybe (without introducing too much structure), parents can spend some time playing with their children to show them how to do it.

Invitation for Reflection

  1. What are some stories you might share with your children about how you played during the summer months when you were a child?
  2. What are some ways you can encourage your children to get outside and move around, enjoy their bodies and all the things they can do to have sensory experiences like running, jumping, climbing, throwing balls, bicycling, crawling around looking for nature’s treasures?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Lakeside Global Institute, Lakeside

Photo source: http://www.comstock/00004125-3.jpg