The importance of play and why children need more of it.

Play is like sleep, it is vital but extremely under rated by our too busy, achievement seeking world. Both seem like an option, rather than a necessity, that can be pushed way down the priority list. Yes it would be nice but must do this first. Even the UK government is colluding in this delusion that play lacks purpose. They couldn’t be more wrong.

Play builds the brain

file000642981570This may seem a big claim but research backs it with evidence of what nature and evolution already knew. Play is a powerful motivator which means children will do it without being bribed or coerced into it. The appetite for play is a reminder that children need to play as much as they need to eat, drink and breathe. Here are some of the reasons why:

  • The brain produces a special growth hormone BDNF –brain derived neurotropic factor which build brain cells. More of this hormone is released during play which allows the experiences derived through play to be assimilated and remembered.
  • Play develops a child’s ability to think and reflect. It is the skill your child will need to explore and make sense of the world. Children need the opportunity to follow their own line of reasoning to see where it takes them. They need to ask questions and search out the answers. Even small children show the emerging signs of a scientific mind which tests and experiments.   If we look at the lives of scientists, inventors, and artists we see that playful experimentation is what “creates” their major breakthroughs
  • Play develops the ability for focused concentration. Motivation and concentration go hand in hand and skilled educators know the importance of engaging children’s interest. Playful experimentation which is under the child’s control is exciting and absorbing and results in deep concentration.  Limiting play is likely to create children who struggle to focus in or maintain concentration
  • Play develops Communication skills: a child’s language development is hugely influenced by the need to communicate with others and to understand and be understood. Research shows us that the ideal conditions for language development are when the child’s interests are followed. Whether at home or at pre-school/school children need a lively 2 way interaction throughout childhood. The bare bones should be in place by age 5 but the complexity of language which predicts educational success continues right through adolescence.   
  • Play is the perfect context to learn how to maintain a high level of self-discipline and practical management. Psychologists call this ability to plan and oversee a work in progress Executive Function.  This important cognitive skill is the foundation for effective learning and children who lack opportunities to practise this skill because they are over regulated will struggle in school. Independent free play offers the ideal conditions to learn to organise and manage what you are doing in a pleasant and fun filled way.
  • Play is self-motivation in practice and this is vitally important as children make their way through school.  Children who have learnt this skill through independent play can transfer it to their classroom learning.
  • Play allows children to discover and use their strengths: children will naturally gravitate to what appeals to them.  They discover through the freedom to experiment what works well for them at a practical level and what gives them emotional satisfaction.
  • Play is essentially creative: relating to or involving the use of the imagination or original ideas to create something. We often narrowly define creativity but I prefer the broader interpretation. The ability to be creative is the ability to adapt or change something from its original form. This is essential to human survivaland something we all need. Interesting research evidence shows that this comes naturally to young children but candiminish if children have more limited opportunities for independent play. Creativity is seeing the world in a new and different way.  Play is the ideal apprenticeship for creativity.

As play is so important we urgently need to find ways to make room for it o a daily basis. This requires significant changes in 3 main areas.

1) We need to change our attitudes about play and see it as the child’s work not as a time wasting alternative to real work.

2) We need to think about where children play best and how to create a play friendly environment which is stimulating and exciting.

3) We need a realistic appraisal of risk/safety factors effectively.

Changing adult attitudes to play

55Our language speaks volumes about our often unconscious attitudes to play in childhood.

“Stop messing about”

“You are playing at it, do it properly”

“If you had worked hard it would have gone better instead of playing around”

Generally when we talk like this, we mean a lack of focus and commitment rather than a genuinely playful, curious and committed approach which characterises imaginative play. Often our real problem is with control. Play belongs to the child and is self-directed. We need to both trust the process of play and the child and accept that play has a valid place in a child’s healthy daily routine.

Here are 3 things you can do

  • Free the timetable for at least an hour a day and let your child choose what to do
  • Offer the space and tools for play but help only if asked and then by facilitating rather than supervising.
  • Monitor your language for play friendly comments. If you catch yourself being dismissive of play ask yourself what concerns you and what you could do to change that. Are you anxious for your child’s future? Do you have dreams that you want your child to fulfil? Do you find it difficult to give your child independence?

A Play Friendly Environment

constructionGamesChildren need several types of play and a narrow play diet is as unhealthy as restricted eating.

  • Energetic play really needs to take place outside and if your child is pacing about and unsettled with their toys/games take this as a sign to get the coats on. If you don’t have a garden or live on a busy street do consider whether you can stop off somewhere on the way home or find an active club your child can join.
  • Shared play. I’m bored can sometimes mean I’m lonely and want to be with other children. Even though your school age child may have just got home, do remember that schools often have limited playtime. Do you need more playdates?
  • Imaginative play. Needs a spark to set it off and paradoxically too wide a choice of toys and games can lead to overload and distractibility. A de cluttering session so that outgrown toys can be passed on often unearths forgotten treasures.
  • Creative play. This can be messy unless you are prepared for it but can be so much fun. Alternatively slowing down routines to make space for play can be productive. Think water play at bath time and messy play with baking.

Managing risk/safety   

file000266980809This is often the reason given for keeping children indoors. So how can you manage risk? Reality is that risks have not increased but our beliefs about the threats to children have changed. We are also  so busy that it can be convenient to believe you are protecting your child rather than finding ways to fit yet more things into a busy day. The reality is that children who play less are more likely to have problems both academically and socially so finding room for healthy play does need to be high priority.

  • Identify safe play spaces in your community
  • Get together with other parents for shared play dates or offer an open house for a few of your child’s friends.
  • Join community groups or consider starting one
  • Explore after school clubs which have a relaxed and playful ethos
  • Consider mixed age peer groups. Remember how in times past younger children were looked after by older friends. This is not just a convenience there is strong evidence that children all benefit. The younger child gains a role model and the older child learns social skills and empathy.
  • Ask your child. Where would you like to play if you could? What is great about it? Then consider how you might make this possible. Play is about giving children a voice but also about teaching a child to think and plan. Finding room for play can be a great shared experience



What Children Need to be Happy, Confident and Successful. Step by Step Positive Psychology to Help Children Flourish 

Jeni  Hooper’s message and methods will fill anxious caregivers with hope. She lets you know in her first pages that the real and lasting difference in the wellbeing of your child now and for the future is in your hands but her practical guide book brimming with effective, simple suggestions reassures you and shows you the way. She says every adult has the tools to help a child achieve psychological wellbeing.  Her ideas are simple; require no material, equipment, or money.  Your time, your common sense and your love for your child will make following her suggestions possible. 

from Top 20 Parenting Books by Special Needs Review


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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2 Responses to The importance of play and why children need more of it.

  1. Pingback: Growing confident learners: is a growth mindset enough? | whatchildrenneedtobehappy

  2. Pingback: Creating a happy, secure and empowering childhood: 5 wishes for 2015 | whatchildrenneedtobehappy

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