Serious Play

How seriously do you take play?

It’s a funny question, right? Play is just for fun. But if you have read a bit about play, you know that play is serious business! First, let’s define play. When we talk about play, we are talking about unstructured, child-led, imaginative play. This is the kind of play that happens when you leave kids on their own with a pile of blocks or a bowlful of pinecones. The kids do not have a goal. The only rules they follow (other than safety) are the ones that they make up as they go along.

Brain researchers, international law makers, and health practitioners are united in the importance of play. Play is so important it is now enshrined as a right in the United Nations Convention of the Rights of Children. So what’s all the fuss about? It turns out that play is beneficial for almost every aspect of development.

Play and Physical development

Play makes kids active! And there are numerous health benefits associated with physical activity. Additionally, play helps children gain mastery over their bodies. It is also instrumental in building hand-eye coordination, a pre-literacy skill.

Play and Cognitive development

Play helps children develop their language skills (story telling, expressing themselves). Imaginative play requires the use of memory and concentration. Spatial awareness, creativity, persistence, and problem solving are all developed during play.

There is a divide in the education system. Some schools are heavily focused on early academic skills. Other schools tout the benefits of play-based programming. There is research that compares the relative benefits of both types of programs. The International Student Assessments (PISA) allows us to compare students between countries. Hong Kong, Japan, and China believe in early academics. Finland is play based. Different approaches, yet the students’ results were similar. Yet Finland produces far more Nobel Prize winners per capita. They have:

  • over five times the number winners as compared to Hong Kong or Japan
  • Over fifteen times the number of winners as compared to China or South Korea

Scientists find similar results when comparing play-based kindergartens with academic kindergartens. The children in the play-based schools become just as good or better at reading and math. The kids in the academic kindergartens did score higher in one very important thing. They had higher levels of anxiety.

Play and Social Emotional development

Play helps kids learn empathy, compassion, and self-control. A tantrum might work on an adult, but it rarely works on another toddler! Kids use play as emotional therapy. They ‘play it out’ the way an adult might talk something out. You may have seen your child repeat a scene from real life with their dolls or stuffed animals. This helps a child understand the situation and process it. Play helps kids decrease stress.

Play between children builds various social skills. These are skills like cooperation, negotiation, resolving conflicts, and speaking up for themselves. It also helps them learn how to work in groups and share. In play you often see children role-playing. This helps children understand the emotions and motivations of others. These skills help the child develop a sense of self, of self-awareness and self-confidence.

Modern Play

Play has taken a hit. Kids today have 8 hours less free play than 20 years ago. They are often too busy to play. This is a disservice to kids. Lost productivity and mild depression can be long-term consequences of play deprivation. Play is good for adults too!

Another problem with modern play is the toys. Many modern toys do not encourage imaginative play. And don’t believe the hype! No fancy toy has ever been proven to improve children’s brains. Some of those toys were proven to actually decrease children’s literacy skills!

Play is serious stuff! Now go have some fun 🙂

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