There is a lot of buzz around “play” right now, or rather the scarcity of play in today’s world. Parents, educators, and experts in various fields of child services are witnessing unfortunate side effects of limited playtime, and their concerns are giving this weighty topic the attention it needs. With the decline of play in the daily lives of children comes increased levels of anxiety, depression, overall decline in feelings of happiness, as well as fewer overall skills, such as social skills and emotional regulation skills.
There are many reasons that play has decreased so significantly compared to the childhoods of previous generations. The first is the growing role of technology. From video games to cell phones and tablets, children are getting far more screen time than ever before. Instead of creating a game or engaging in an athletically based game, children are turning to cyber games and activities. Second, parents perceive unsupervised and outdoor playtime as more dangerous. Whereas children in the past could play in their neighborhoods and nearby parks regularly, there are now safety concerns that can only be mitigated with adult supervision, requiring precious time from parents and caregivers. Areas for free play with adult supervision or parental supervision are limited in many communities, further restricting the ability for kids to play safely. Finally, schools provide far less recess time due to growing academic demands. This previously built-in and adult-supervised playtime is become both less frequent and shorter in duration. When all of these factors combine, there is a clear picture of just how scarce childhood play is becoming.
There are a variety of different kinds of play, each with their own values and benefits—let’s take a look at some of the most popular and most important.
Free play is, as its essence, creativity in action. Children get to express and explore any topic, theme, feeling, or challenge that is relevant to them at that time, in whatever manner feels best. When other children are involved, this is also a great way to learn and practice the art of navigating relationships. If two children disagree about what to play or how to play, they have to navigate that conflict in order for the play to resume. Practicing social skills in this way builds a host of important capacities, such as empathy, how to communicate their vision, and the ability to compromise and co-create.
In addition, the physical/active component typical of free play aids in the development and mastery over gross motor skills, fulfills the body’s need for movement and energy discharge, and can support a healthy lifestyle.
Aggressive play is one of the trickier types of play to talk about because it makes people, namely adults, uncomfortable. But there is an important differentiation that needs to be understood: aggressive play is not the same thing as aggression. Many children, especially boys, have aggressive impulses. Of course they do! Media depicting aggressive behaviors as normal and acceptable is everywhere children look. In addition, many parents use parenting strategies that may feel aggressive to a young child (whether or not that was the intention of the parent)—including yelling or physically removing a child from a situation. So, if aggression is a built-in component of a child’s life, it is natural that they would want to explore it.
Allowing children to engage in aggressive play offers them an avenue to explore it safely. The alternative is to not allow space for it and to treat it as a punishable behavior. The problem with this approach is that the urge to explore aggression does not go away; instead, it builds and often comes out in less healthy or sneakier ways.
There are many benefits to letting children engage in aggressive play, including but not limited to: enhanced emotional intelligence, increased brain development and activation, and improved ability to play fairly with another person.
There is no shortage of studies proving that humans have an inborn connection with nature and that exposure to/engagement with the outdoors has incredible benefits both physically and psychologically. Outdoor play is one of the most beneficial forms of play, enhancing everything from Vitamin D levels and overall healthier lifestyle, to ability to concentrate and perform on academics, and so much more. Outdoor play can also be easily combined with another form of play to double up on the benefits.
Something else magical happens when children spend a lot of time outside, exploring and appreciating nature: they develop a love for the environment. Now, more than ever, we need our children to have a deep passion for the environment and motivation to save it. A generation of children raised amongst nature is more likely to value sustainability than a generation of children raised on iPads and video games.
Play as Language
As a play therapist, this one is my favorite and it is always accessible! Children utilize play to express and make sense of things in their life. Because verbal expression skills are developing into adolescence, play is a more natural way to externalize what is happening internally. Engaging in a child’s play and really allowing them to be in control of what happens in the play gives you a window into their biggest challenges, feelings, and self-image. Setting aside time to play with your child in this way can help you to better see and understand your child’s experiences.
This can be challenging without support and training, so don’t be too hard on yourself if you aren’t getting it. Support is always available through our play therapy and parent coaching services, and continuing to practice can sometimes bring clarity. I cannot stress enough how transformational it can be to just reframe play as a way that your child is expressing him or herself.
So, now that we have established that play is AMAZING and a childhood necessity, how can we ensure that our children are getting more (not less) of it? Here are some ideas…
What You Can Do NOW
1. Encourage your child to engage in free play
2. Set up play dates
3. Go to a park
4. Limit screen time
5. Set aside parent-child play time
6. Let your school district know that cuts to recess will not be supported
7. Allow aggressive play (while maintaining safety)
8. Let your child be bored…it may just get their creative juices flowing
9. Find places where your child can engage in supervised play that do not require your direct supervision (we all know parents have a lot of other things to do!), such as a community recreation center, day camp, etc.
10. Try play therapy!