It’s Child’s Play: The Importance of Playing for Child Development

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Have you ever watched a child engrossed in racing toys cars around a track, hosting a tea party with dolls and stuffed animals, or building a giant structure out of LEGOs or K’nex? Children work hard when they play! 

That’s a good thing, too, because playing is how kids develop motor skills as well as cognitive skills. It’s not overstating the case to say that play is every child’s job.

Curious to learn more about the importance of playing for children’s development? Read on for a quick primer!

First, What Exactly Is Play?

Play can be defined as an activity or pursuit that is undertaken sheerly for enjoyment or amusement. It’s crucial to point out that the activity itself is not what determines whether the individual is engaged in work or play, but the motivation and attitude of the player.

For example, one child might love nothing more than running and throwing balls — but another might dread it and do anything he can to avoid participation in this type of play.

A few other defining characteristics of play:

  • It is concerned with the means, rather than the ends
  • It is self-directed — players choose what to play, how to play, and when to stop playing
  • Play generally incorporates an aspect of fantasy or pretend
  • Play is inherently creative

Most child psychologists and play experts make a distinction between “free play” and playing a game with established rules, like a sport or a board game. Free play is pretending to be pirates, running around the neighborhood with friends, or enacting a scene with action figures, and the like.

However, it’s not a cut-and-dried distinction. Nor is play an all-or-nothing proposition. An activity can be part play.

The Importance of Playing to Development

Play is the primary way in which children engage and interact with the world around them. As such, it offers benefits including the development of:

  • Fine and gross motor skills, coordination, and spatial reasoning
  • Social skills including communication, cooperation, and compromise
  • Cognitive and language skills
  • Independence and self-reliance
  • Strong relationships with parents, siblings, other relatives, and friends

Play helps relieve stress. It offers a safe space in which children can work through their emotions, express themselves, and acquire an understanding of how the world operates.

Children also use play to practice the skills they will need to navigate life as they grow older. 

The Value of Play to Physical Health

It’s no secret that the United States is undergoing an obesity epidemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the percentage of children and adolescents who are affected by obesity has more than tripled in the past 40 years.

This is alarming news, for a variety of reasons. Children who are overweight or obese run a higher risk of health problems, such as asthma, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, joint problems, sleep apnea, cancer and many more — not just as children, but into their adult lives as well. 

Obesity also takes an emotional toll on kids, making them more likely to be teased and bullied, to develop depression and suicidal ideation, and to have issues with self-esteem and relationships.

Why has physical play declined so much in the past few decades? Yes, the increase in media — television, movies, video games, smartphone apps, and even just surfing the web — is to blame. But so is an increased focus on academic success and college preparation.

Children should get at least one hour’s worth of physical exercise each day. Yes, participation in sports, whether or a team or individual basis, offers tons of benefits.

But it’s also crucial for kids to have the opportunity to combine physical movement with free play.

Tips for Encouraging Healthy Play In Your Child

Left to their own devices, all children will play. Parents and caretakers can certainly take steps to encourage their charges to play, but in many ways, the best thing they can do is to get out of kids’ way and let them do their thing.

Here are some tips for ensuring that your child gets the maximum possible benefits from their playtime:

1. Stop Overscheduling Your Kids

Piano lessons, French lessons, marching band, karate, softball: extracurricular activities and organized sports all have their value, but your child should also have plenty of free time.

Leave room in their schedules for them to decompress after school, play by themselves, and play with others.

2. Don’t Micromanage Play Dates

It’s understandable that you want to provide your child with plenty of games, toys, and options when they have friends over. But step back and let them direct their own play and choose their own activities. This goes for times when your kids are alone, too. 

3. Keep Screen Time to a Minimum

Children should have no more than two hours per day of computer or smartphone usage, video games, and television — combined. This includes background media. Keep the television off.

While you’re at it, limit your own Internet use, both for your own well-being and to set a good example for the young ones.

In addition to restricting the time kids spend on the Internet or watching TV, it’s important to make sure their online activities are appropriate. Do some research on a parenting website or blog before letting your kids roam free in cyberspace, and install parental controls on your computers and phones.

4. Foster Creativity with Old-Fashioned Toys

Simple toys — building blocks, dolls, dress-up clothes, and balls — will inspire your children to be creative and to make up their own games and play. The more bells and whistles a toy has, the more passive the entertainment it offers. 

Give children access to art and craft supplies, too. They may need supervision with paint, glue, scissors, clay, and glitter, but it’s well worth the benefits they will reap from indulging their curiosity and creativity.

Wrapping Up

The importance of playing is better understood now than ever before, even as play takes a backseat to other activities. Giving kids the time, the space, and the freedom to dream up their own games and imaginative scenarios is one of the best things you can do for them.