Question: I keep reading about how play is important, but why? It seems to me like my kids and I have so many better things to do, and I run out of ideas for playtime.
Your question comes at a perfect time, with the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recently releasing a clinical report that concludes with a recommendation that pediatricians prescribe play for/with children in their first two years of life. Doctors prescribing play! Imagine that! It certainly validates play’s importance and will help children and their parents to develop playfulness! If it’s being prescribed for infants and young toddlers, what about the rest of us? We all need play in our lives. When we come to recognize its value to our minds, bodies, emotions and interactions, perhaps we’ll all do a better of finding playtime for our children and ourselves. Though we may need to think of the doctor telling us to do it to rationalize spending time playing, play, pure and simple, is ideally based on intrinsic motivation. We play because, from the inside, it feels good to be engaged in activity for the enjoyment, challenge, and/or involvement in “doing”, or in the process itself.
What is play and why is it important?
Play is one of those things that is hard to define, yet it’s said to be a primary occupation of childhood (lets keep remembering that adults need it too!), whether playing with parents or others, or independently. Play is intrinsically motivating activity in which an individual engages for the sake of engaging, rather than for a specific practical purpose or a specific outcome (for example, the fun and problem solving involved with building a castle, as opposed to building a castle because somebody assigned the task). It’s a way of amusing oneself, or participating in interesting and enjoyable action with others, all while naturally stimulating the brain & body and developmental skills (sensory-motor, language, cognitive, emotional, social, self-help) and affecting our biology through the lifespan. The AAP clinical report is interesting, informative, and comprehensive. Click here for the full report.
Dr. Stuart Brown, a play researcher and founder of the National Institute for Play, helps us understand the neuroscience of play and its solid evolutionary importance, while explaining its critical importance in our lives in his 2010 talk as the Aspen Ideas Festival, and in this YouTube video, Play is More than Fun, It’s Vital. He has also written an enlightening book, Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul, which will also help you understand play’s importance.
What kind of player is your child? How about you, yourself? According to Dr. Brown, we each have our own “play personality” that is likely to be one, or perhaps a combination, of these seven types:
artist/creator, who plays as he/she creates
collector, who enjoys acquiring and having the most interesting collection of things or experiences that fascinate him/her
competitor, who plays by way of creating games, by him/herself or with others, and plays to win
director, who plays through organizing activities and experiences, for him/herself and others
explorer, whose play involves discovery, be it physical, emotional or mental
joker, who loves silliness and to engage in nonsense through play
kinesthete, who loves to move, and thinks and feels best when moving
storyteller, whose play focuses on imagination such as telling stories, acting, writing, cartooning & drawing, engaging with others’ products of their imagination.
Observing your child in play (and thinking about yourself and how you play), will give you an awareness of what he/she finds amusing. We as parents, teacher, therapists, and players can honor one’s primary play personality and indulge in activities associated with it, be aware of play compatibilities, and help shape “well-rounded play personalities.”
Play isn’t always easy
Many of us have experienced challenges in play; they’re often part of the play process. Yet for many of the children we work with, the challenges surpass what are considered typical, and are related to underlying limitations or liabilities in areas including sensory processing, motor control, coordination and/or planning, language, cognitive ability, emotion, and sociability, and/or are perhaps related to bio/medical factors, or a tendency for repetitive, inflexible behaviors. Many of the children we work with either do not or cannot play independently; for many of them engaging in play with an adult is difficult. These children are “play deprived” and play deprivation in not good for them or their brains. If your child happens to fall into that category, it’s no wonder you find coming up with play ideas difficult! It, in fact, is! That’s where your therapist comes in. Believe it or not, we’ve all taken courses in play, and creating and engaging in playful experiences is part of our training and the effectiveness of what we do. If your child is currently in therapy, talk with your therapist about how his/her problems are affecting his/her ability to play, both independently and with others. Find out about play development and the different types of play, and get ideas to get started with bringing play and playfulness into home and school for your child (and you!). The following resources are among favorites for sparking ideas for play:
Playful Parenting by Lawrence J. Cohen
A Moving Child is a Learning Child by Gill Cornell and Sheryl McCarthy
The Art of Roughhousing by Anthony T. DeBenedet and Lawrence J. Cohen
Be it games, physical activities, creating, fantasy, outdoor (or indoor) exploration, ideally there’ll come a time when the play ideas won’t have to come from you, they’ll come from your child. You’ll find him/her playing in both familiar and new ways, or you’ll be able to say “Go play” and he/she will do just that!