The power of play to boost children's development
A six year-old boy received a surprise gift from his father... a car.
His father decided not to re-register his old broken down second car. Rather than selling it to the wreckers for $200 he parked it in a corner of the backyard, removed the fuel tank, secured the car so it could not roll away, and then handed his son the keys. That year, the six year-old drove his mother from Auckland to Wellington, then to Christchurch, and up and down New Zealand time and again. He drove his dad to the beach, to the mountains, and even to Australia! Each trip only took around ten minutes, but those trips created lasting memories for an imaginative boy and his parents.
Play is all about exploration, imagination, wonder. Ideally it will not be a quick, marketable, purchasable product that is structured toward ‘outcomes’. Play – real play – is about spontaneity, discovery, and creativity.
Play – the old-fashioned kind – is a lifelong skill that builds and satisfies curiosity, broadens the way we think , reduces stress, and boosts energy levels. Kids have an innate sense of play and desire to play. Adults ‘grow out of it’, or become inhibited and so will not play.
The importance of play
Play is not just for kids. Grown-ups – even the parent kind – benefit from play as much as children, if not more. Children (and grown-ups) need to learn the skill of play. And research shows that the family is the best place to learn those skills.
How play aids a child’s development
Play helps with communication
Play provides opportunities for children to develop speech and language abilities and also to practice listening. Whether their play is companion-based with a sibling, peer, or parent, or solo play using imagination, children talk and listen while playing. It can be exciting to hear your child sitting in the family room interacting with toys and hearing her play one character, then another, as the toys interact. It can be invigorating to watch your son dress up as a superhero and save the bath toys from the evil emperor. It was meaningful for a mother to sit in a beat-up old car and listen as her son drove her around New Zealand.
Play helps with relationships
Play promotes social interaction, and social skills and competence. Children who play, both with parents and peers, learn how relationships work through their play experiences. The number of friendships and the quality of their friendships will also usually increase as play becomes more prevalent.
Play boosts cognitive development
Imaginative play and role-playing are particularly powerful kinds of play that help the brain develop in more functional and positive ways. Children who engage in these kinds of play have a more sophisticated level of interaction with others and with their environment than those who do not. This is particularly evident in studies of children who watch high levels of television in comparison to children who spend more time playing.
The research on play shows how powerful it is for children’s development
Research shows that:
- Children whose dads played with them were found to have greater levels of imagination and cognitive ability compared to kids whose dads were non-players.
- Children whose mums played with them experienced more secure attachment to their mums, and enjoyed more positive development when compared to children whose mums were unavailable for play.
- Older children who played with their parents were also more engaged in other activities, experienced positive school engagement, had positive mental health, stronger friendship networks, and enjoyed greater family closeness compared with older children without playful parents.
How play benefits parents
So how do parents benefit from this? After all, we’re the ones who are juggling the needs of the children with the demands of being ‘the responsible adult’ who doesn’t actually have time for play.
It can actually be really hard to enjoy it. Lots of parents feel like it’s no fun to play at all. Dress-ups, dolls, swordfights, Zhu-Zhu pets, littlest pet-shops, and bouncing on the trampoline may not be your idea of good fun.
Parents who play get big boosts in self-esteem, and most important, significant increases in relationship satisfaction. This goes for both playing with their children, and also being playful with other adults, particularly spouses.
Child’s play is not just for children
From infancy to old age, play is consistently related to positive wellbeing. Put simply, play makes better, happier kids – and better, more fulfilled parents.