“Children need the freedom and time to play. Play is not a luxury. Play is a necessity.”

Kay Jamison, Professor of Psychiatry

Play isn’t something we as humans can do; it is something we need to do.

As photos of back-to-school photos abound, and backpacks are filled with folders and sharpened pencils, let’s talk about play. Did you know that all of the different aspects of childhood development–cognitive, emotional, social and physical–intersect in the act of play?  

Cognitive Development 

Peter Grey, an American psychologist states “The drive to play freely is a basic, biological drive. Lack of free play may not kill the physical body, as would lack of air, food, or water, but it kills the spirit and stunts mental growth.”

Play is vital in strengthening the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is responsible for decision making, planning, impulse control and more. Unstructured or freeplay is particularly important for this, as it is a springboard for creativity. Creativity is essential as young brains learn how to solve problems and find solutions, and often pairs with curiosity which is foundational for learning.

An important note: Young people need access to practiced adults who can help navigate situations when necessary. This does not mean the adult is directing the play, but available to help equip children with the social tools as needed.

Emotional Health 

Play is essential for the emotional wellbeing of all people. Play for children allows them to access emotions in a controlled way. This means they can play with fear, anger, sadness, surprise, excitement and more in a way that they can manage and control. This experience is empowering, and transfers directly to the ability to be able to regulate with greater ease in non-play situations. Play also provides consistent opportunities to both practice empathy and compassion and be on the receiving end of it.

Social Development

Humans are social animals. At the core, humans need other people and relationships in order to be the best versions of themselves. Playing with others requires verbal and nonverbal communication. It requires synthesizing different ideas, navigating conflict, advocating for oneself and others, and collaborating. Nobody, even an adult, gets it right all of the time. Play also creates space for mistakes, and more importantly repair, to occur. 

Physical Health

Moving the body has a direct link to cognitive performance and growth. Literally, moving makes it easier to think and process information. So when a child has spent the day at school and has an hour of homework, moving and playing can make it easier to tackle. Rebounding (think trampoline and Adventure Board) and heavy work (pushing/pulling–like hanging from monkey bars or pulling your body up the Adventure Board with only arms) play specifically can be calming and increase focus. Physical play benefits include increased balance and coordination, cardiovascular health, muscle strengthening, and increased emotional and mental wellbeing.

True, authentic learning and processing best happens when people are invested, and kids are naturally invested in play. Fred Rogers states “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” While there is a lot in the world that cannot be controlled, intentionally creating more space for children and ourselves to play is something that can be done, and will undoubtedly make our world better.

Do you feel like it can be hard to play, or even facilitate it for your kids?

Stay tuned for Play: Part 2 “How to Play More!”

Move. Play. Adventure.