My twin boys are now 13. I read a few parenting books while I was pregnant, and again when they were newborns, but they mostly focused on sleeping and feeding routines and tips on how to swaddle a baby! What I didn’t read, through my sleep-deprived eyes, was about child development. Knowing what I do now, there are so many things I wish I had known when they were babies. The biggest one is the value of learning through play.
Sure, we played with them all the time. We played with them to keep them stimulated and engaged. We played with them to bond with them and to entertain them. But I don’t think my husband or I ever stopped to think about how much they got out of it developmentally.
We all know that young kids love to play. It's in their nature. They have a wild imagination and a wonderful sense of unadulterated fun. But is playing just for fun or is it an integral part of their development?
In today’s competitive world, there has been pressure on preschoolers to work hard and play less. Some preschools choose to focus on the more traditional academics—basic math skills and letter recognition—rather than playing. This can result in important developmental skills being overlooked. But the two don't have to be mutually exclusive.
In a COVID-era world, the education system is finally getting a much needed, albeit unplanned, overhaul. With most school kids across the nation in distance learning, many schools have adopted smaller class groups, to allow for more individualized learning, especially during remote instruction. As younger kids can’t spend half their week on video calls with their teachers, there’s an increasing pressure on parents to keep their kids engaged and to further their growth and development themselves.
So, is playing really that important? Is it just for preschoolers or is there a value of play for older kids? Is there such a thing as too little play or the wrong types of play? Well, let’s break it down.
The Value of Learning Through Play For Kids Under 6
Under the age of two, children engage in parallel play. In other words, they’ll play independently alongside their playmate. As their language skills start to develop, from around 2 ½ to 3, children begin to interact more with others. Over time, they start seeking out those who share common interests, naturally gravitating towards children who are similar to them. That’s when playing really becomes even more fun!
Experts place high importance on the value of play as studies show that playing is key to a child’s social, emotional, and physical development. Play is known to have a positive effect on a child’s cognitive development, dexterity and hand-eye coordination, and creativity and imagination. In other words, it’s key for both brain and physical development.
Learning through play – What does that really mean?
"Social-emotional development includes the child’s experience, expression, and management of emotions and the ability to establish positive and rewarding relationships with others". Cohen and others 2005
Cognitive, social, and emotional development are all very closely linked. They can influence a child’s decisions and their ability to think, reason, understand through problem-solving, attention, and memory (to name but a few).
Through play, children are able to make sense of the world around them. Positive experiences and emotions can play a big role in a child’s cognitive development and inspire a child to learn. It stands to reason, the happier the child (at any age), the less stressed and anxious they’ll feel, and the better they’ll perform at school.
Moreover, positive social interactions i.e. playing with others, whether it be with another child or an adult, introduce the child to hugely important “people skills” which are essential for later success in life. Below are examples of how different experiences through play can start to develop these social skills and provide children with a strong foundation for future development.
Examples of Social, Emotional & Cognitive Skills a child develops through play
Let’s start with the single most important value of play: the sheer joy and happiness a child feels when playing. That in itself is worth more than its weight in gold. As we all know, laughter is the best medicine for everything!
Talking of laughter—laughing when your child pulls a funny face will encourage a positive reaction from them (who from around the age of 4 loves to goof around and make people laugh). They’ll react to that emotion and pull a funny face again to elicit another laugh from you (or indeed someone else!). They’ll start to understand cause and effect. They’ll remember the reaction they received, and repeat the newly discovered party trick on another day (a deposit for the memory bank and points for humor).
Social play or cooperative play, i.e. playing with others, will help your kids develop their verbal and nonverbal communication skills. Through language development, listening, body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice, young children are able to communicate their wants and needs to each other. Through social play, they also experience the concept of giving and taking, as they learn to share their toys (granted, some kids may take longer to develop this particular skill than others!). Having to wait for their turn has the benefit of teaching them patience/delayed gratification.
Other essential “people skills” young children can be introduced to through playing with others are social cooperation, collaboration, and conflict resolution —they learn to “work” together in order to build something or to make something happen. They also receive important lessons in flexibility and compromise by not always getting their own way and get to use negotiation techniques and bargaining power as they attempt to get what they want! Best of all, they start to learn about friendship and get a sense of belonging.
Constructive play i.e. using building toys and puzzles, introduces them to strategic thinking as they consider where things need to go and why. It can also improve their focus, concentration/attention span, and their ability to follow directions as they listen to the instructions or look at pictures to see how something might work. By figuring out that a round peg goes in a round hole, they learn to solve problems. By repeating this process, they use/exercise their memory.
Independent play i.e. playing alone, allows your child to learn how to entertain themselves. It gives them a chance to be independent and try to figure things out on their own. It can help them increase their confidence as they enjoy their own successes.
Structured play i.e. playing games with rules, like board games, sports, tag, or Simon Says games, allow children to understand the importance of social contracts and rules. It helps teach them that for life to function properly, certain rules must be adhered to.
Fantasy play i.e. when playing dress up or make-believe, kids use their creativity and unleash their imagination. They're able to experiment with language and emotions.
By pressing a certain button on a toy and hearing a sound, or even pulling too hard on a doll’s head and snapping it off teaches them about cause and effect/consequences (no dolls were harmed in the making of this blog post!). When children immerse themselves in free play (unstructured play), it gives them the freedom to make their own rules, be unrestricted in their thinking, explore the impossible, and be imaginative.
The list of benefits is seemingly endless, but it’s inevitable that they’ll also experience the less than desirable, yet developmentally important, ones, too. These may include jealousy, selfishness, anger, disappointment, frustration, lying, and cheating. Fear not, though, as these are all part of their healthy all-round development—emotions that they’ll (hopefully) learn to control and rein in as they mature. Over time, these will be replaced with feelings of honesty, pride, sensitivity, empathy, and sympathy.
What About Physical Skills?
Playing in early childhood and later on in life is also integral to the development of physical skills—specifically fine motor skills (when the small muscles in the wrists, hands, and fingers, or the feet and toes work together to perform precise and refined movements) and gross motor skills (the movement and coordination of large muscles, such as arms and legs, etc).
Physical play (also known as motor play) gives children a chance to develop both individual gross and fine muscle strength, and overall integration of muscles, nerves, and brain functions.
Building blocks are a great way for kids of all ages to practice their fine motor skills and improve dexterity as they pick up the sometimes fiddly bricks and learn to place them the right way to connect them together.
Other great ways to practice these fine motor skills include puzzles, drawing, cutting, sewing, beading, (finger) painting, and sticking stickers. Practicing their fine motor skills will help your children develop a good pencil grip and handwriting skills.
Rolling down a hill, standing, walking, running, playing sports, jumping up and down, balancing on one foot, skipping, and climbing trees are just a few ways to help develop gross motor skills (and wear out your children).
Things like playing catch, throwing a ball, threading and lacing, playing bat and ball, video games, and stacking cups can help develop better hand-eye coordination, which will also help with reading, sports, and handwriting.
While none of these skills get developed overnight, they give children the building blocks which they will continue to develop throughout their childhood (and, indeed, into adulthood!).
Remember: playing doesn’t just benefit kids! Laughter (and chocolate!) releases feel-good endorphins and helps keep us young. Playing with your child has the added benefit of creating additional opportunities for parent-child bonding. So, it’s a double win!
What happens when it's all work and no play?
"If we love our children and want them to thrive, we must allow them more time and opportunity to play, not less". Free To Learn, Peter Gray.
In most preschools across the country, the majority of learning has been done through play. By the first grade, however, learning through play is put on the back burner. This is primarily due to time constraints and pressure to cover the prescribed curriculum and meet government-imposed standards.
According to Investopedia; "In 2020, the top three educational systems in the world were Finland, Denmark, and South Korea." Finland has consistently ranked number 1 and is considered to have one of the most "advanced and progressive education systems in the world."
There are many reasons for this including, but not limited to, an absence of poverty, more funding for education, free education from preschool through to college, higher pays for teachers, better-qualified teachers, socialized healthcare, free lunches, etc. The most controversial thing about it at all has to be that children in Finland do not start school until the age of seven, there's little standardized testing, and elementary students have longer and more frequent recesses.
Basically, kids in Finland have more time to be kids. With little homework and shorter school days, kids have more time to play. Business Insider reports: "The Finns place a lot of value on free time and play. By law, teachers must give students a 15-minute break for every 45 minutes of instruction".
By contrast, in the US, some preschools are moving away from play-based learning towards a more academic/structured learning in an attempt to get the kids reading and writing before the first grade. With the pressure now more on academics, the value of play, in particular free play (unstructured play), has not been recognized. Consequently, there has been an erosion of kids' free playtime. But at what cost?
The Deficit of Play in Children's Lives
The Physical Impact of a Play Deficit
KaBoom! is a national nonprofit dedicated to helping communities build playgrounds for children so that they can give all kids the childhood they deserve, filled with balanced and active play that will help them thrive. They believe play matters for all kids because all the science affirms that play is critical to a child’s overall health, development, and well-being.
"The play deficit continues to harm our children and stifle their mental and physical development, while directly facilitating the ongoing childhood obesity crisis". Darell Hammond, Founder & CEO of KaBOOM!
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), "the percentage of children with obesity in the United States has more than tripled since the 1970s" and today, about one in five school-aged children (ages 2–19) has obesity".
The reason for this increase is mostly two-fold. Firstly, their diet. Secondly, the lack of exercise. According to KaBoom!: "Only one in four children gets 60 minutes of [the recommended] physical activity or active play every day".
Kids should be going outside and getting fresh air. They should be playing in yards or playgrounds, climbing trees, playing jump rope, tag, hide and seek, and climbing the play structure. These are all fantastic ways to further practice their gross motor skills and burn off some energy after sitting in a classroom all day.
Older kids should go rollerblading, cycling, running, skateboarding, shooting hoops—they should enjoy the freedom and stay physically fit. Sadly, kids today lead a more sedentary lifestyle than previous generations. With shorter recess at school and increased planned activities and homework after school, there are fewer opportunities for kids to be outside and be active.
The Intellectual Impact of a Play Deficit
Creativity can't be taught. It can be fostered, it can be encouraged, but it's not something we can learn. We already know the value of play when it comes to providing children with opportunities to explore their creative sides and imagination. There is a fear that the lack of (spontaneous) play can harm a child's skills, flexibility, and strength to cope with stressful situations (now and later on in life).
Creativity expert and author, Sir Ken Robinson, is challenging the way we're educating our children. He believes that our school systems require a revision so that they are able to cultivate creativity and acknowledge multiple types of intelligence. Check out his TedTalk on “Do Schools Kill Creativity?”, in which he discusses how today's (certainly pre-COVID) children are given fewer opportunities to be creative at school.
Nowadays, kids in schools (elementary through high school) don’t have enough opportunities that can stimulate their innovative and creative sides. While we won’t be able to change that overnight, we can provide a more playful environment for them outside of school. Giving our children the time and freedom to unleash their imagination through play—whether it's playing make-believe, creating free-style drawings, making up stories, or building a spaceship out of card boxes—will be invaluable to their emotional development.
It's not just young children who benefit from a playful environment. Some middle schools and high schools are now trying to bring back an element of age-appropriate play to their classrooms/studies as research has shown "a rise in mental health problems—such as anxiety and depression—among young people that has paralleled a decline in children’s opportunities to play" (Time).
Students aside, organizations across the country have started to recognize the value of play and its impact on their employees. Numerous workplaces have created chill-out areas and gaming zones where staff can kick back, relax, have a laugh and stimulate their creative juices. Some even offer classes to encourage their staff to be more creative—from painting and drawing to learning how to play musical instruments.
According to Fox News in a pre-COVID article entitled: 'Work hard, play harder: Fun at work boosts creativity, productivity'; "Google employees are paid to play beach volleyball, go bowling or scale a climbing wall; activities that take place at the search engine’s main campus in California. At LinkedIn, employees can play Foosball or ping-pong when they tire of answering emails. At Zynga, arcade games grace the hallways".
Many organizations now appreciate their employees’ needs to switch off from the more regimented side of their jobs and recharge, in order to stay productive and keep their creativity flowing. The same goes for students of all ages! They spend most of their day in a fairly rigid environment at school, so letting them cut loose after school is what their minds and bodies crave.
The Social Impact of a Play Deficit
We've seen a decline in play (all variations) over the last five decades. According to author Peter Gray, PhD, Professor of Psychology at Boston College, "free play has been continually declining, at least partly because adults have exerted ever-increasing control over children's activities... It is hard to find groups of children outdoors at all, and, if you do find them, they are likely to be wearing uniforms and following the directions of coaches while their parents dutifully watch and cheer." With COVID, this undoubtedly has and will continue to get worse.
The increase of working parents, safety concerns, helicopter parenting, fear of strangers, traffic, academic pressure, homework, and the rise of technology are just a few reasons for this deficiency in outdoor, unstructured fun. The result? A more risk-averse society with increased anti-social behavior.
During play, children learn to work in groups, share, negotiate, resolve conflicts, explore friendships, and communicate with each other. Those who aren't given enough playtime are more likely to encounter problems during more formalized social interactions. Playing with others in an unstructured environment is invaluable for forming valuable life skills and developing healthy relationships.
Children need to be able to fun with one another (and their parents). They need to play with toys, build forts, put on plays, create imaginary worlds, make up games, chase monsters, blow bubbles, play tag, argue over Monopoly, draw and guess with Pictionary.
So, let's all take a leaf out of Peter Pan's book, because in the words of the great George Bernard Shaw:
You can read more about early child development on our blog post: 5 Main Areas of Child Development.