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Play and Child Development

L C David is an English teacher at a state university. She enjoys writing about her experiences.

Children playing in a sandbox

Children playing in a sandbox

The Importance of Play Time

In this world of schedules, competitive preschools, academics, and testing, many loving parents want to make sure that their kids get the edge. They know that the world is an uncertain place and they want their child to have every advantage as they enter adulthood and pick a career to pave their future.

As part of this, parents often pick extra-curricular activities to boost every aspect of their child’s social, academic, and physical well-being. While there are many great opportunities out there for enriching your child, it is important that you also realize the benefits of taking them to a park or sending them into the backyard armed with some old blankets and their imaginations.

According to Scientific America's Melinda Wenner, free play is important for every aspect of your child's development and builds "social, emotional, and cognitive" skills.

Here are some of my experiences while watching my own children participate in unstructured play time. Play time is good because it:

  • is good for social skills,
  • shows how to deal with difficulties,
  • allows backyard time, and
  • builds real skills.

Read below to find out more.

Good for Social Skills

Taking your child to a park where other kids are playing can teach you a lot about your child’s social interactions and abilities. Kids, often with little or no encouragement from adults, will organize a game, organize a hierarchy and a community within the playground, establishing rules, guidelines and leadership.

If it is not something that your child is used to doing, a few hints might help.

“Hey, look at that boy over there in the green shirt, he looks like he’s about your age. Do you want to take your football over there and see if he wants to play catch.”

You can also point out games that are already going on and suggest that they see if there is room for one player. Just a bit of guidance can send them in the right direction.

Often, even the shyest child will find a way to connect with someone who likes to play the same games they do.

I notice that the children that seem to have the hardest times are the ones whose parents hover over them, constantly directing their play. As hard as it is to do, try to sit back and watch and let your child figure out her level of interaction.

How to Deal With Difficulties

Ultimately, allowing your child to navigate through unstructured play may lead to issues. There may be a conflict about what game to play, a misunderstanding or flat out rejection by another kid. Letting your child learn how to cope with these difficulties is a great learning experience.

When my kids face rejection on the playground, I have suggested that they simply say “Okay, I’ll just go play with someone else.” We have talked about the fact that the rejection may not be something personal but instead could just be another kid having a bad day or a kid that is scared to reach out or try to make friends.

While I want their play to be natural and unguided, I am still in the background, watching and making sure that difficulties don’t overwhelm the child. They know that they can come to me if the issue gets out of hand or if someone gets physically rough.

Afterwards, we will talk about the conflict. “Why do you think he got angry?” “Was there anything you could have done to make the situation better?” “If you see him at the park next time, what do you think you’ll do?”

We know that when they reach adulthood, they will also have to face situations where interactions don’t go as planned. Allowing them to begin to navigate these situations in a safe environment helps them to develop.

Sometimes Your Backyard is a Great Place to Explore

Sometimes Your Backyard is a Great Place to Explore

Backyard Time

If you have a backyard or a green space near your home, it is important to encourage your kids to go out and explore it. I am fortunate to have a backyard with a bit of woods to one side. My kids will often spend time out there exploring, thinking, building, and playing. I don’t have a plan when they go out there and sometimes they claim boredom. But other times they will build elaborate forts out of sticks and broken toys. Allowing them to imagine and create on their own helps to build connections in their brain, allows them to develop their personalities and allows them to figure who they are and what they are good at.

Imagination Builds Real Skills

I have also found that allowing kids free play time lets them build their imagination while connecting it to real skills. For example, I took my kids to see the movie “Lincoln;” the next day they were playing in the yard, reenacting scenes from congress, the battlefields and other historical moments. Another time we had watched and read some information on the Revolutionary War, specifically noting how the Americans fought differently from the British.

That afternoon when I went out to check on them, they were hiding behind trees and talking about battle plans, explaining that they were planning how to defeat the Red Coats.

If I had told them to go out and play this or tried to orchestrate a game, it would not have worked. Instead, they took new information, turned it into a game with their own rules and at the same time reinforced concepts and ideas that they had just learned.

I know that it is a fast-paced world and we all want what is best for our children. Making sure that they get some free-play time within their busy lives will benefit them both now and in the future.

  • Old-Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills : NPR
    Elaborate toys, busy schedules and the demise of recess have left children with fewer opportunities for imaginative play — and it shows. Researchers say changing the way children play has changed their emotional and cognitive development.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.