The Importance of Play at All Ages

What may look like meaningless, inconsequential fun is actually a serious and essential childhood endeavor.

By Susan Cowan Morse

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. — Fred Rogers

Play is not just important to human health — it is vital. When we look back over human history, we see that play is a mainstay in human activity. Interestingly, in modern American society, play for children has been declining even while research repeatedly proves the crucial role of play in childhood development.

What is Play?
“Trying to define play is like trying to define love,” says play theorist Gordon Sturrock. Play theorists describe play as a set of behaviors that are freely chosen, personally directed, and intrinsically motivated. That’s right — freely chosen!

While children may look like they are playing when they are on the athletic field in a game organized and run by an adult, they are not actually playing. They are following instructions and their behaviors are dictated by the needs of the group activity. Participation in organized sports allows children to be active, master skills, and work with others. But it does not count as the type of play that is crucial to childhood development.

The Work of Childhood
What kind of play is crucial to development? The type of play in which the child is free to choose what they are doing and how they are doing it. Such as:

  • A child playing in her real or imaginary playhouse, with or without peers
  • A child creating a village out of cardboard boxes and blankets
  • A child setting up her dolls and stuffed animals to play school
  • Children working together to build a city using wooden blocks
  • Children organizing their own rope jumping games at recess

While none of these examples requires an adult to direct the activity, a parent or caregiver still plays a key role. That grownup’s job is twofold: to hold the space and time for free play to occur and to ensure everyone’s safety.

Less Recess, More Tests
Child-initiated play has gradually decreased since the 1970s. Since then, education reforms in public education have resulted. As a result of these reforms today’s students spend more time being tested than did students in the 1970’s and before. The response of schools to these reform pressures is to require more time spent on didactic instruction and assessment while cutting recess and activity time. Students spend more time on academic work with demands for cognitive tasks often not in line with what we know to be appropriate for neurodevelopment. For example, today, kindergarteners are expected to learn and master what was once expected of first graders.

Play-based Learning
As preschool teachers know, play is the main work that occupies children every day. Until recent years, most preschools were play-based. Now, with greater academic demands, some have turned to didactic teaching. As a result, play-based preschools choose to be defined as “play-based” in order to set themselves apart from academically-focused schools.

One such play-based preschool is The Sparrow School in New London, N.H. Founder and Director Rachel Ensign is keenly aware of all that her students are learning through their self-directed play each day. “When children play “pretend,” they assume a developmental level above their chronological age. This creates an opportunity to practice skills that would otherwise seem out of reach,” says Ensign.

“Through imagination, they try out these complex roles and reach for new personal achievements. For example,” Ensign explains, “taking care of babies requires planning, sequencing, emotional intelligence, listening, cooperating and empathy. It doesn’t look like much to the untrained eye, but it is actually everything.”

A Lifelong Need
Free, unstructured play is vital for children of all ages, not just little ones. Teenagers need plenty of free play time. They use it differently than younger children do — most often to practice their emerging social skills. Also, many teens use it to pursue their own creative endeavors such as art, building a business, or learning non-academic skills.

Is play really that important? Yes! Human beings evolve and expand through free play. According to psychologists and play experts, play is vital in learning to self-regulate; honing group management, cognitive, and language skills; creative problem solving; controlling impulses; navigating boredom and frustration; and learning about oneself and others.

How to Facilitate Free Play

  • Limit your child’s screen time. Playing games on a screen is still an adult-mediated activity versus free play. It was an adult who created that game and determined how the game plays out!
  • Free time for at least 60 minutes per day. Make sure your child has plenty of time during the week for free play outside of school, lessons and sports.
  • Send them outside. Encourage children to go outside and play. Go to a playground, on a hike, play in the backyard.
  • Play with them! Set your own chores and work aside, get down on the floor and follow their instructions. Have fun!
  • Keep plenty of materials on hand. Cardboard boxes, paper towel tubes, blankets, etc.
  • Advocate for your child to have plenty of recess time at school.
  • Look for schools that embrace free play, such as Waldorf, Montessori and nature-based schools. Also, consider homeschooling.

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