If I asked you what children do, “play” would be one of the top 3 answers.
But what is play exactly? It’s more than just a child engaging with toys or running around with other kids. It’s real work.
Play can be defined as “any spontaneous or organized activity that provides enjoyment, entertainment, amusement, or diversion.” It is an occupation that is intrinsically driven by curiosity and exploration to interact within their surroundings. It allows for imagination, the ability to pretend with limited consequences, as well as the opportunity to share and act out ideas other with no judgment.
Notice that I said play was an occupation.
Yes, PLAY is an important job that a child does from birth to 12 years of age.
When a child plays:
- They understand their own body and how it moves within space
- They learn about their environment, objects in relation to each other, and cause and effect
- They engage their imagination
- They learn how to build with various objects
- They interact with others and participate in games
Play helps a child establish the foundations necessary to learn and gain new skills as they age. It builds social skills, engages their sensory systems, challenges their bodies, maintains their arousal level, and encourages problem-solving skills. Unfortunately, we as parents, can hinder the chance for our children to play in the way they need to.
How do we hinder play for our children?
To be honest, we try too hard with our children. We overprotect them, we overschedule them in structured activities, and we are exhausted. We (or at least our parents) can recall the days when we would go out on the playground, get dirty, get injured, pretend we were superheroes/villains or play house for hours. Nowadays, we have greatly limited the amount of unstructured play necessary for a child to grow and learn. We limit it by saying, “No, don’t do that…get out of that…what are you doing?” or “We have to go to (insert after school activity here).” Or more often than not, we are busy individuals with professional and personal obligations, and we hand our child a tablet to pass time assuming it’s play. (For the record, screen time is not play time.)
When we do this, we withhold all the benefits play provides.
How can I introduce more play into our day?
- This may be hard, but you must trust your child. Absolutely supervise and be there for them, but when you see them playing in mud or climbing the cargo net for the first time, don’t freak out. Let them try. Let them get dirty. Let them fail or freak out. When you do that, you help them learn new skills and sensations that they can build on.
- Limit screen time as best as you can. There are many articles about the concerns of screen time, so I won’t get into it. Just know that screen time should not be considered a form of play time. Sure, they provide enjoyment with their positive reinforcement tactics, but like all app games, they have dictated outcomes regardless of what the child does.
- Don’t have time? Play while you do chores. Children model what they see and build off experiences. That’s why you see so many toys that that mimic daily life, like mini cookware or power tools. Allow your child to play and participate with you. If you are doing laundry, give them rolled up socks and toss it into the basket. If you are cooking, have them help you pour or measure ingredients. You can also have their pretend food/cookware nearby so they can imitate you.
- Schedule in free time. Children should have at least an hour of unstructured play. Pull the toys out and let them pick and choose. You’ll be amazed what your kids come up with. And if they’re bored, let them be bored. Encourage them to make-believe by asking them questions, “What else can this box be besides a box?” or “Where does Elsa live? Maybe we’ll build her ice fortress with these pillows?” or “Let’s try to build a tower so tall it touches the sky.”
- When playing with your child, be a playmate. Get down on all fours, make silly faces, make crazy noises (ex: wheee, vrrrooom, brrr, eee-ooo eee-ooo). Facilitate ideas if you need to, but let the child be in charge.
- Allow the child to have control within reason. Let them pick the activity or game; however, if they start changing the rules so that they have an unfair advantage, let them know. Tell them it’s not nice, it hurts your feelings, or that makes you not want to play with them (or some variation of this).
- If you are playing a competitive game, don’t let them win all the time. Allow for them to lose, but then teach them good sportsmanship. This teaches social skills with others.
All in all, play is hard work for children. Give them as much opportunity as possible to do their job.
“The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds”, Kenneth R. Ginsburg, and the Committee on Communications and the Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health. Pediatrics January 2007, 119 (1) 182-191
Occupational Therapy Practice Framework: Domain and Process, 2nd Edition. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, November/December 2008, Vol. 62, 625-683.
“Occupation of Play”, Dr. Sonia Kay. Live lecture at Nova Southeastern University, 2008.