Our occupational therapist, Emily Martin, is constantly emphasizing that “play is a child’s first occupation.” There are countless quotes about how important it is for children to play, learn, and imagine as much as possible.
However, in our busy society and ever-growing need to balance a bunch of things at once, kids are hurried from one thing to the next without a lot of time to simply play. There has been a recent push on behalf of pediatricians to prescribe play as an anecdote for stress and to encourage its presence in childhood. But why?
Why play is important
Although the golden days of drinking out of a hose outside during the summertime after dinner, while mom was inside vacuuming the living room while smoking a cigarette with John Chancellor on NBC, playtime is just as important for children in 2019 as it was in the 1970s. Unstructured time for children has decreased tenfold over the years, due to a greater emphasis on learning, and increased reliance on screens, to name a few. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) lists nine specified reasons that playtime may have decreased over the years, most notably the increase of screens.
The decrease in free play can also be explained by children being passively entertained through television or computer/video games. In sharp contrast to the health benefits of active, creative play and the known developmental benefits of an appropriate level of organized activities, there is ample evidence that this passive entertainment is not protective and, in fact, has some harmful effects.
The reason that play is so important requires a hefty description. Since we can’t say it better ourselves, check out this explanation that covers the benefits of play from the American Academy of Pediatrics:
Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. Play is important to healthy brain development. It is through play that children at a very early age engage and interact in the world around them. Play allows children to create and explore a world they can master, conquering their fears while practicing adult roles, sometimes in conjunction with other children or adult caregivers. As they master their world, play helps children develop new competencies that lead to enhanced confidence and the resiliency they will need to face future challenges. Undirected play allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, and to learn self-advocacy skills. When play is allowed to be child-driven, children practice decision-making skills, move at their own pace, discover their own areas of interest, and ultimately engage fully in the passions they wish to pursue.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) highly stresses the importance of play in children. While kiddos really need the learning that they are doing in school, they just as badly need unstructured time for physical activity. It’s tough for a kid to sit in a chair for several hours at a time, and play time is a great contrast to that.
Playtime is important for children because it provides the opportunity for problem-solving skills, communication skills, conflict management skills, helps them make sense of their environment, and so much more.
In addition, the AAP recognizes that children who are hurried from one task to the next without a break, time for self-reflection, gathering their thoughts oftentimes are statistically more anxious and prone to depression. None of those things sound fun. Since children are not getting the opportunity to play, problem-solve, and self-reflect, the subsequent result of a hurried lifestyle void of play is difficulty with self-awareness and self-soothing. Those side-effects of a hurried child are what lead to the correlated societal trend of increased depression and anxiety after adolescence.
What is the best way to play?
If you subscribe to any parenting magazines, you may or may not have noticed that there’s a huge debate about how kids play. The debate consists of the following question: Should we prize ingenuity and problem solving over safety when it comes to the play constructs we have for children?
To illustrate the question, think about a playground that has been recently built. Everything is made out of thick hollow plastic, the ground is probably squishy, and there’s swings, slides, a climbing activity center, and the likes. Now, picture a different scene that’s more like a workshop with wood, nails, a hammer, et cetera. Both are feasibly environments that children can play on. One of them facilitates a more safe, energetic environment, and the other is a self-instigated work environment that’s a bit more potentially risky.
It may be a good idea to come to terms with the notion that kids aren’t made of glass. One of the best things a kid can learn from playtime, as mentioned by the AAP, is problem-solving skills. Kids can attain better problem-solving skills through what early childhood researchers and specialists refer to as “risky play.”
Risky play, that is, “can be defined as a thrilling and exciting activity that involves a risk of physical injury, and play that provides opportunities for challenge, testing limits, exploring boundaries and learning about injury risk,” according to Ellen Beate Hansen Sandseter, a professor of early childhood education in Norway.
Allowing children to have unstructured time in environments that encourage originality and creativity is great for their self-esteem, task completing, creativity, self-trust, risk-benefit analysis, to name a few. There are a seemingly infinite number of invaluable skills kids can gain if they are allowed to explore, create, and invent during an unstructured playtime.
Giving kids the time to explore their skills, abilities, and interests in a “risky play” manner allows them to fully control the situation can improve self-awareness, confidence, task completion, problem-solving skills, and many others.
Risky play and safety
We’re not saying you should let your children run wild. Of course, kids need supervision to ensure their safety and wellbeing. But instead of playing with them and helping them problem-solve to complete tasks, it may be a better endeavor to allow them to figure out how to make—and learn from—their mistakes.
According to a blog by Backwoods Mama,
Risky play is not about exposing children to situations that can result in serious harm or danger! Parents, grandparents, and educators need to teach children how to be aware of risks and how to manage these risks appropriately to avoid serious injury. This can be done by helping children to develop awareness of their physical surroundings, to think critically about their actions and to problem solve when they do encounter challenges.
You don’t have to put your kids in harm’s way to help them develop problem solving skills. Allowing them to play by themselves is great. Just try to not hover.
While there is a lot of debate about risky play, the abilities of your child and your personal preferences ultimately determine if you want to engage with it or not. That said, allowing your child the independence they need to grow and develop as an individual is essential in their mental wellness development, as illustrated by research.
Play activity ideas for kiddos of all ages
Age appropriate play ideas mean something different for children of different ages and abilities. While some of these ideas involve playing alongside your child, they do not exclusively require you to play with them.
Babies are highly stimulated by visuals. Play with colorful blocks, black and white books, and the likes.
Use brightly colored objects, blocks, and other toys to encourage fine motor skills.
By this age, kiddos are still distracted to bright colors. This is the stage where sensory toys, tactile objects, and stims are great to use. Use toys to encourage fine motor skills, executive functioning, and task planning.
Kiddos around this age love pretend play. Giving them the opportunity to play dress-up by themselves, get a make-believe kitchen, building forts… it’s all great for children of 1-2 years.
During this time, it’s great to help kids with fine motor skills to help them with pre-writing abilities. Give them a pen and paper and let them draw and color.
Playing outside games like basketball, baseball, and the likes can help them with motor planning and executive functioning. This is also a great time to introduce risky play in a simple way. Just start easy with a little bit of play wrestling or rough-housing if you feel comfortable enough.
Introducing a little bit more risky play at this age may be a great idea for many children. Let them play in the backyard or an outside park with some sticks, insects, rocks, and whatever else. Give kids the space to play by themselves without being hovered over. Monitor them to ensure their safety.
Gradually introduce a bit more risky play into their daily lives. Let them run, roll, or bike down a hill at high speeds (Don’t worry! They’ll be okay!). Even if your kiddo is in a wheelchair, you can join them in pushing them down a hill. Honestly, the high speed is something that they’ll probably love since it’s unexpected and challenging to their proprioceptive system. If your kid hates that, that’s fine! Try pushing them on a swing a little bit more vigorously than normal.
Take them to a trampoline park. No matter the ability of the kiddo, trampolines are pretty fun for just about everyone. If your child has physical disabilities or special needs, it can be a great idea to call ahead and ensure that your family gets the accommodations necessary. You can bounce your kiddo in a wheelchair on a trampoline. Don’t believe us? Just watch this viral video.
Trust your kid with a hammer and nails. You can work together with them to build something. You can buy relatively inexpensive building kits from just about any home improvement store. Giving a child the opportunity to work with their hands and trust themselves with tools can give them an increase in confidence when the task is over. Just allow their imagination to run wild and help them engage their mind and hands in a simple construction task.
This is also a great time to introduce forts. Playing with pillows and blankets inside the house is a great construction task that encourages imagination and creativity.
Build a fire together. If you don’t know how to start a bonfire and roast marshmallows, this is a great time to learn! The good old University of YouTube has a plethora of how-to videos. Giving any kiddo the chance to learn and build a bonfire is pretty fun for everyone since it teaches them the responsibility necessary to enjoy a well-roasted marshmallow on a fire they helped you build.
Please understand that, while all these ideas may work for some, they might not work for all. Take everything in this article with a grain of salt. You know your child and their abilities best. But please, turn off the screens and let them just play!