The Positive Psychology of Play: How Play Helps Children to Flourish

Children love to play and become totally absorbed in games they choose for themselves.  Everyone agrees that play is important for young children but once children reach school age it can become crowded out by a busy timetable of structured activities and homework. But play is not just a time filler and it has a continuing important role to play in a child’s development throughout childhood and beyond. Positive Psychology is a new branch of research which examines what creates our best selves.  Here are 8 good reasons from Positive Psychology to find time every day for play. Before we go there I’d like to make a distinction between two types of play

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Deep Play– is when a child is free to choose and direct the course of play using their imagination, personal preferences and whatever resources come to hand to support this.

Surface play: looks like play but may be constrained by a toy which has to be used in a particular way or a pre- set game with rules or an electronic device which has an inbuilt programme. The child has limited control over the course of this type of play although it may be useful practice for building certain skills.

  1. Discovering and developing strengths: Children choose to play at what interests them and this is a marvellous way to discover what you enjoy and to develop skills in a relaxed and pleasant context. Our strengths are energising and revitalising because we gain so much satisfaction from the process. Our strengths are also our best opportunities for achievement so we gain a sense of competence too.
  2. Motivation: motivation is the power that drives learning. It gives us the persistence to keep going when faced with challenges and the desire to solve any problems and not give up. Effort is known to be a greater predictor of success than measures of ability/intelligence so finding motivation is vital. Motivation is both a set of skills and a mindset which is developed from experience. Children, who play creatively, using their strengths, learn important lessons for life through their play.
  3. Mastery: children need a solid experience of success on a regular basis to build their personal sense of self efficacy “I am someone who can do things” Deep play will lead to a child practicing and learning new skills which gives them a regular experience of success and of being able to make things happen independently.
  4. Positive Emotions:  did you know we have more “negative” emotions which alert us to threat than positive ones? Consequently we have to work to redress the balance, particularly in a busy world which can be stressful. Professor Barbara Fredrickson’s research has identified the 3:1 ratio for wellbeing, that is we need to create 3 times the number of positive emotions and make them last. Play is a fabulous and free way for a child to feel a sense of joy and delight in what they are doing.
  5. Engagement: children gradually learn how to focus and sustain their attention and manage distraction. This is a difficult skill to master, made more difficult if the task is too challenging. School often presents such challenges while independent play draws a child in and allows them to manage the process so they stay engrossed. When a child is deeply absorbed in play they experience a state of Flow so time flies by and distractions are ignored. The experience gained through deep play transfers to other areas of life.
  6. Growth Mindset: this concept- originally described by Professor Carol Dweck identifies two views of ability. The Fixed Mindset assumes that ability/intelligence is finite and has a ceiling. When children who think this way meet a challenge, they are likely to assume the problem lies within them; they assume they have reached their limits and may give up. A Growth Mindset assumes ability is developed through practice and persistence. Play encourages a growth mindset as a child is free to be open and creative about how they shape their play. This encourages both persistence and problem solving and allows the play to keep on track so that a successful outcome is achieved.
  7. Creativity: Play is free form and the child can take their ideas and experiment with whatever comes up. The human brain is hugely creative and needs these free opportunities of exploration and experimentation to flourish.
  8. Coherence: child development books often compartmentalise children’s development for convenience sake. For the real child their learning journey is to take different areas of their experience and process them into a coherent whole. What better way to do this than through play?

Six ways to encourage deep play

  • Make time: children need the freedom to play which won’t easily happen when their schedule is full of structured activities and homework. Look at how to free up time if necessary.
  • Aim for an hour a day of uninterrupted time or 2 x 30 minutes as a minimum. Children need time to develop an idea and let it run on.  More is better of course.
  • Reduce the reliance on structured toys and equipment that limit a child’s ability to use the toy creatively by putting time limits on the use of these toys.
  • Offer support to younger children who are learning to play creatively and may find deep play more demanding at first. Act as a second in command playmate but offer options when things falter to keep the play going. Don’t direct however tempting that may be.
  • Declutter play spaces: too many toys can swamp creativity and encourage children to flit from toy to toy without getting the experience of deep play.
  • Focus on the process not the outcome: don’t look for results or expect to be told what happened or how it went. Play can have a dream like quality which can’t easily be described but is none the less important.

Jeni Hooper is a Child and educational psychologist specialising in helping children to find their best selves and to flourish.  Her book What Children need to be Happy, Confident and Successful: Step by Step Positive Psychology to Help Children Flourish is published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers and can be viewed here  http://www.amazon.co.uk/What-Children-Happy-Confident-Successful/dp/1849052395/ref=tmm_pap_title_0

Jeni can be contacted at info@jenihooper.com or visit my website www.jenihooper.com

 

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About hooperj

I am a child psychologist and wellbeing coach and author of What Children Need to be Happy, Confident and Successful: Step by Step Positive Psychology to Help Children Flourish which is published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
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