Dogs bark, birds sing and children play!
Babies and children interact through play a long time before they speak. It’s how they communicate and make sense of their world.
Yet in this digital age and with intense academic pressures, time for traditional play is often under threat.
Watch our video on the five ways you can encourage free play, or read on to learn about the benefits of play.
Here’s a reminder of the top 3 reasons why play is important and how you can safeguard your child’s primal instinct.
Play = Brain Development
As humans (and mammals) one of our first languages is play.
It’s one of our primal motivational circuits—which means its deeply embedded in our brains—world-class neuroscientist and psychobiologist Jaak Panksepp discovered.
This signifies the importance of play for our evolutionary success.
Our brains are full of potential from the start of life with all the neurons (brain cells) we’ll ever need: 100 billion brain cells to be specific, which is 10 times the number of stars in the milky way!
A study of 11,000 third graders showed that children who have more than 15 minutes of daily recess time are better behaved in class and likely to learn more ~ Pediatrics Journal
Through experiences we affect the wiring of the brain. Play allows multiple safe opportunities for trial and error, allowing children to build new neural pathways in the brain and make sense of the world.
At around 2-3 years old, the brain goes through ‘pruning’ of the neural pathways, trimming away the least used and keeping those which are stronger (the most used, with most repeated associations).
Through playful experiences, the brain becomes more integrated and the neural networks more complex—paving the way for more complex tasks and thoughts to develop.
Play = Happiness and Well-being
“The opposite to play is not work. It’s depression,” says Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of The National Institute for Play, a non-profit that set up to promote the benefits of play.
A lack of play has been linked to higher rates of anxiety, attention problems and depression in young children, states research professor Peter Gray’s article in the American Journal of Play.
Play is the fertile ground from which initiative, creativity and problem-solving flourish
A play deficit in your pre-school years (<5) can also have longer term effects—with increased emotional and social problems seen in adulthood, explains Professor of Education Beverly Falk in her book Defending Childhood.
As such, play therapy has been leading the way for children with social, emotional and behavioral difficulties.
The organization Play Therapy UK analyzed over 8,000 cases and saw a positive improvement in up to 84% of children referred for help.
The earlier children seek help from a play therapist, the bigger the improvement as well, it found.
80% of children displayed a positive behavioral change at age 6, compared with 71% at age 12. (Note: These results were measured with U.K. registered play therapists, of which there are around 80 in Hong Kong.)
TIP: Check the Play Therapy Register for a global list of regulated, trained professionals by country.
Why is this?
Studies show that play sets off a chain of hormonal activity, which is conducive to feeling good.
During play the stress hormone cortisol is lowered and the feel-good hormone oxytocin is boosted.
In free, child-led play, kids also gain a sense of control over their daily lives. They have the opportunity to feel a sense of freedom and exploration.
Free play is time where a child leads their own play and makes their own choices. There is no forced outcome or product expected of them.
Unlike adults who use words to express ourselves, a child’s developing brain does not have as much access to this verbal outlet.
Children need to play it out and express their inner world without using words.
Play = Self Discovery
Play is the fertile ground from which initiative, creativity and problem-solving flourish.
In free, undirected play time, children get to act out different roles and series of trial-and-error experiments; come to their own meaningful discoveries.
They get to follow their own interests and find out about what they like and don’t like, free from external expectations or pressure.
Through play, children can “find their own story” and express their true sense of self, concludes Dr. Deborah MacNamara in her book Rest, Play Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers.
I truly believe if we can nurture and protect children’s free play time we can raise a generation of more content, confident and resilient adults who are secure in themselves, who know what they want and are creative and adaptive enough to live a fulfilling life.
So, let the children play!
A Play Therapist’s Tips For Free Play:
- Build time in your schedule every day for free play—as much as possible but at least 10 minutes.
- Choose open-ended toys that naturally lend themselves to multiple uses, such as art supplies.
- Allow children to play in non-conventional ways with more fixed-purpose toys (eg. as adults we may want to hit a drum, however a child may like to scratch it or use it upside down).
- Let your child lead, so they feel empowered. This is distinct time separate from parent- or teacher-led activities.
- Rid yourself of expectations, so your child can truly relax, process and explore. Trust that your child is learning what they need to learn at that moment. Childhood is not a race after all!
Rachel Winston is a registered play and creative arts therapist, and the founder of Hong Kong-based Full Cup Play Therapy. She combines elements of art and sand tray therapies and therapeutic storytelling, along with music, dance, drama and puppets as part of her integrative play therapy toolkit. Rachel is passionate about helping children help themselves, by building self-esteem and resilience.