Fairfield County Edition

Discover the Power of Play

Whole-Child Development Requires Less Structure

When asked if their kids play, many parents would most likely respond that they play all the time, whether it is video games, sports or an instrument. And, while all of those types of play are important, none are as important as the power of unstructured play in the lives and development of children. It is through play—specifically unstructured play—that children process the world around them and truly learn.

The American Academy of Pediatrics stated in a recent report that children between the ages of two and 12 spend an average of seven hours a day engaged with a screen, whether it is a television, computer, phone, tablet, video game or other electronic devices. A mere one hour per week is spent in active, free play. The report states that children and teens should not be engaged with entertainment media for more than two hours a day. And the content they should be exposed to should be of high quality. The association also emphasizes the importance of spending time on outdoor play, reading, hobbies and free play.

Unstructured or free play is defined as a category of play that is open-ended and has no specific learning objective. It is when the only objective is enjoyment and self-directed by the child. This type of play has many incredible benefits for children.

Play makes children smarter. It is during play when a child’s mind subconsciously processes all of the information received throughout structured learning or organized activities, and becomes cemented into knowledge.

“Play increases brain development and growth, establishes new neural connections and, in a sense, makes the player more intelligent. It improves the ability to perceive other’s emotional state and to adapt to ever-changing circumstances,” states Jeffery Goldstein, PhD, in “Play in Children’s Development, Health and Well-being,” an article published for the Toy Industries of Europe.

As adults, we often find that we need to clear our minds and take a walk to better focus on our tasks. It is the same with children. In fact, schools in Finland and other European and Asian schools take mandatory play breaks for up to 15 minutes after 45 minutes of classroom learning. This recess is typically outdoors; it has been shown to both help children transition from one subject to the next and settle down to focus for the next period of learning time. Think of how difficult it is to sit in a conference room for a two-hour meeting, let alone at a desk for a full eight hours. Now imagine doing that as a child.

Play helps build critical life skills. Another important aspect of play is that children learn and practice invaluable emotional, social and language skills.

It is the time when children can develop empathy, compassion and conflict resolution, especially if they are allowed to negotiate their own differences. When children are allowed to make up their own game, they set the rules. When one child does not follow the rules established by the group, the children can, and will, police those rules. Even though it may be accompanied by “that’s not fair” cries at times, this is when children can learn to speak up for their own needs and desires, work together to find what’s fair and eventually solve their own problems. The children are learning about self control, exerting their own feelings and building their own sense of right and wrong while following rules set by their peers. Of course, adults may need to step in from time to time to ensure the safety of all involved. All are critical life skills for healthy, productive adults.

Play builds creativity and problem solving. Children use their natural curiosity and creativity to master the world around them, solve problems and develop their imaginations when they play. As Albert Einstein said, “Play is the highest form of research.”

Let’s pretend a group of children discovers some sticks and branches and decide to build a fort. Left to their own devices, they will work together to position the sticks in a way that allows them to create a structure. Typically, one child will emerge as the idea person and enlist the help of others to help achieve their objective of building the fort. “If we put these two branches this way, we can lean all the other sticks against them,” another child—who may have natural spatial aptitude—may say as he assumes the engineer role. Others will emerge as the workers, taking direction and getting the work done. Throughout the process, roles may switch and another person might emerge as an innovator and problem solver. They have learned teamwork, problem solving and communication, along with following and giving directions all through play.

Play helps kids define themselves. By trying out different roles during play—such as teacher, police officer, veterinarian or inventor—children discover what interests them, leading them to discover life-long passions. It allows them to discover their fears and conquer them.

When a child pretends he or she is an explorer, they get down on their hands and knees to look at bugs and grass to discover that worms are both yucky and incredibly interesting. When they walk on the curb, they may be pretending they are a tightrope walker, all the while conquering balance and feeling brave. By climbing trees, they learn critical thinking and problem solving skills. Doing any of these things in the company of other children teaches them control of emotion, empathy for other children and the ability to help each other.

Play is whole-child development. Physical play enables children to build muscle strength and coordination. Emotional and pretend play helps them to express feelings and emotions.

Play has been shown to dramatically reduce stress, assist in helping offset attention deficits and allow children to focus. It enables them to be happy in their own way on their own terms, and feel joy and accomplishment. These benefits are increasingly important in today’s world, in which children report feeling stressed at younger ages and technology replaces human interactions.

With the benefits of free play so widely documented, why is there such a dramatic decrease in play for our children? Many factors influence this. First, with the increased amount of two-income households, parents need to keep their children occupied while they accomplish many of the tasks around the house. It is a simple decision of occupying the children with a movie, television show or video game while parents clean, do laundry or simply get some down time for themselves.

Second, in schools play time or recess has been decreased to ensure enough time to teach the required materials. Additionally, there is a safety concern about letting children out to play at home or at school. The risk of injury to one’s own child or another and potentially being sued comes along with letting children play in situations like climbing trees or rough-housing. Letting children out to play in the backyard while a parent does laundry is a chance that might be taken; on the other hand, someone could perceive that the children are unsafe and unsupervised and call the authorities. It has become dicey to allow our children to play in the ways we played as children.

Thankfully, many resources allow parents and caregivers the opportunity to let the kids play. Connecticut abounds with children’s museums that provide ample activities for children to exercise their minds and bodies. The benefits of children’s museums go beyond the children and their well-being. They provide the opportunity for parents to connect with one another too. While children are engaging in age-appropriate play with other children, parents can form new social connections, sharing the joys and challenges of parenting. In an ever-increasing socially disconnected world, children’s museums become a social center benefitting the entire family, and creating strong communities through shared experiences, empathy and connection.

Parks and playgrounds provide the opportunity for parents and children to spend time outdoors engaging in conversation, play and nature. The added benefit is that many are free. Scheduling a play date lets the children run, jump, laugh, tumble and connect while allowing parents time to sit, relax, read a book, sneak in some adult time and reconnect with each other. Play can benefit the whole family.

To truly empower your child, help them discover the power of play.

Sheri Hatfield is a Connecticut-based freelance writer and advocate for play.


Give Children the Power of Play

The Alliance for Play, a nonprofit organization promoting play, has created a primer for play that lists what parents and adults can do to help children play.

Reduce or eliminate screen time. Give children a chance to flex their own imaginative muscles. They may be bored at first. Be prepared with simple playthings and suggestions for make-believe play to inspire their inner creativity.

Curtail time spent in adult-organized activities. Children need time for self-initiated play. Overscheduled lives leave little time for play.

Choose simple toys. A good toy is 10 percent toy and 90 percent child. The child’s imagination is the engine of healthy play. Simple toys and natural materials—such as wood, boxes, balls, dolls, sand and clay—invite children to create their own scenes, knock them down and start over.

Encourage outdoor adventures. Reserve time every day for outdoor play where children can run, climb, find secret hiding places and dream up dramas. Natural materials such as sticks, mud, water and rocks—are the raw materials of play.

Bring back the art of real work. Believe it or not, adult activity—cooking, raking, cleaning or washing the car—actually inspires children to play. Children like to help for short periods and then engage in their own play.

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