Adults tend to be dismissive of children’s play, assuming that it’s just for fun or just something that kids do that is easy and uncomplicated. There’s even an old saying that says “child’s play” expressing the idea that some task or challenge is simple or straightforward. But the truth is, “child’s play” is much more complex and important than many people might realise. Recent research is discovering that the way children play can influence their overall emotional development and can help to shape their lifelong interests and interactions. Kids aren’t “just” playing – they’re figuring out important lessons about how the world works and how to get along with others. Children’s play is really a whole universe of wonder and discovery!
According to research from the University of Cambridge and other sources, here are some of the ways that children’s play helps them learn, grow, and develop into healthy, capable human beings:
Play Advances Physical Development
Perhaps the most obvious benefit of play is that it helps children to be more physically active. Just by running around the yard or climbing on play equipment at the park, children are stretching their muscles and filling their lungs; they are burning calories and gaining coordination and improving their confidence for physical challenges. Active play can also set children on the path for better lifelong health – a recent study from the Canadian Medical Association suggested that Canadian kids need to reduce their screen time and spend more time doing active physical play in order to reduce the rate of childhood obesity. Young children should be given as much unstructured time as possible to play outside in the yard or at parks, in order to expand their physical skills and create lifelong interest in sport and healthy exercise.
Play Builds Imagination
Have you ever watched a child play with a stick and turn it into a plane or a doll or a wizard’s wand? Or watched as kids invent elaborate creative stories and play-act these scenarios with their stuffed animals or toys? Children are great at coming up with new ways of using everyday objects for magical purposes, and their daily play is how they learn how to be creative.
Children will often learn to be creative even without fancy toys or action figures – for example, many parents remark that whenever they buy some big present for their kids, the kids are often happier to play with the box and packaging that the present was wrapped in! This is a good point, because it shows that kids can often invent their own little worlds of play more effectively than any toy manufacturer.
Play Promotes Social Skills
Becoming well socialised and able to interact with others is a key development goal for every child, and play is essential to this ongoing process. When kids act out their own imaginary games and set the rules for their latest pirate ship adventure or tea party or other activities, they are not just “playing,” they are negotiating the rules and boundaries of their little world and learning how to get along with others. Children’s play teaches some very complex and profound human skills, such as empathy – by playing together, children learn how to respect the feelings of others, learn how to negotiate boundaries and alternatives, and learn how to share and collaborate. These are all serious lifelong skills and wonderful personality traits that arise from simple “child’s play.”
Play Helps Kids to Work through Emotions
Any parent who’s ever tried to negotiate peace between two disagreeing/angry/crying children can testify that children’s play is sometimes full of conflict! Children are often processing powerful emotions while going through their daily play activities. Research from Case Western University found that children who have suffered traumatic situations can use play as a way to process the negative emotions, and that all children can use play to help to process and recover from more mundane negative emotions in daily life. In this way, children’s play helps make children more emotionally resilient.
Play Offers Opportunities to Connect to Nature
Another aspect of play that touches on a lot of these other benefits is the way that children’s play can help them connect to nature. One unfortunate reality of modern life is that many people are spending too much time indoors, sitting on chairs and couches, watching TV, smartphone and computer screens. Human beings evolved to be much more active and spend more time outdoors surrounded by trees, plants, birds, animals and natural sounds. Recent research is showing that spending unstructured time in nature can have many positive effects on our mental and physical health, and it’s especially important to give children the chance to experience nature on a regular basis. Playing outside teaches children how to explore, be creative, take risks, and manage challenging conditions. In fact, according to this article, it’s even better for children to play outside in all types of weather conditions, even if it’s a bit cold or rainy; learning how to deal with the elements and enjoy the experience of being outside will help children be more resilient.
Ultimately, children’s play is not just about recreation – it’s about developing children’s minds, bodies and spirits so that they will be well equipped for the challenges and opportunities of their future lives. When we watch children play, we’re not just watching a simple game or singsong act of make-believe – we’re watching the future being built before our eyes.
What have you learned from watching your children play? What is most interesting and important to you about the new research on the benefits of children’s play? Leave a comment and let us know, or join the discussion on our Medela Malaysia Facebook page!