• Dr. Amy Loriaux

The Importance of Play

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”. Remember that one? It may be more accurate than you think. Play is a natural part of being human, especially so for children. It is so essential that the United Nations has declared it as a right of every child[1]. While we adults may view play (or more the “grown-up” forms of play, such as a pick-up basketball game) merely as a pleasurably way to pass the time, for children it is so much more. In actuality, play contributes to healthy psychological and psychosocial development. Through play, children learn much about the world and themselves.

Child psychologists suggest that there are as many as six types of play, each of which is associated with different aspects of development[2]. Physical play, or rough-and-tumble play with friends, fosters the development of social cognition and teaches children how to interpret social cues and signals. It also promotes physical health. On the other hand, playing with objects, such as building blocks or toys, is thought to enhance a child’s understanding of the world and may help develop representational, reasoning and problem-solving skills. Symbolic play, which includes a range of activities surrounding language, music, drawing, and writing, helps develop language and communication, and is associated with greater self-regulation and higher school achievement. Pretend play may enhance the child’s ability to feel for others, as they “try on” different roles while pretending. Finally, play with rules, such as hide-and-seek, tag, and games, helps children learn about how to function in a rule-based society. Interestingly, children actively seek out games with rules, often creating their own rule-based games.

Another important factor when it comes to play is how it is structured. Structured play is typically adult-led, goal-oriented activities and games. Organized games or sports teach children how to follow directions, work together to achieve a common outcome, and how to use logic solve a problem. In contrast, unstructured play, or “free play” is open-ended. Playing with blocks, coloring, or inventing games, are all examples of unstructured play. As opposed to the benefits of structured play, unstructured play may promote creativity, imagination, and empathy. Thus, a “balanced diet”[3] of structured and unstructured play is necessary to produce a well-rounded child, strong in both logical and creative abilities.

Denying children play may cause a variety of harmful outcomes, such as anxiety,

depression, and behavioral problems[4]. This is not to suggest that other activities, such as traditional school-based learning, are not important. In fact, play is thought to increase academic performance, eagerness to learn, and problem-solving skills. Unfortunately, due to a variety of factors, there has been a national trend to decrease time allotted for both structured (e.g. music time) and unstructured (e.g. recess) forms of play in favor of more academic-based activities such as formal instruction.

Additionally, children’s free time is being taken up more and more with scheduled extracurricular activities. Many of us may remember spending every weekend driving to and from sports practice, club meetings, and other events. While these activities are also important for proper development it can reach a point where it becomes detrimental. Overscheduling can cause kids to become fatigued, stressed, depressed or they may simply lose interest. Thus, it is important to ensure that children have some time to engage in play on their own terms. The last thing we want to do is to take the fun out of play. When it is forced upon children, play can quickly turn into a chore, and become, in essence, work.

1. Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Convention on the Rights of the Child. General Assembly Resolution 44/25 of 20 November 1989. Available at: https://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CRC.aspx. Accessed January 25, 2021.

2. The Lego Foundation. “The role of play in children’s development: a review of the evidence”. November 2017. Available at https://www.legofoundation.com/media/1065/play-types-_-development-review_web.pdf. Accessed January 26, 2021.

3. Playground Centre. Unstructured Vs Structured Play. Available at https://www.playgroundcentre.com/unstructured-vs-structured-play/. Accessed on January 27, 2021.

4. Ginsburg et al., 2007. “The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong bonds. Pediatrics 199(1). 182-191. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2006-2697

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