“Our kids are animals too. They need to play to grow up. Staying on task. Focusing. Creating. Cooperating. Communicating. Free play fosters almost all the traits we’re dying for our kids to develop.” writes Lenore Skenazy in her PBS Parents website article, “Why we should take play seriously” (http://www.pbs.org/parents/child-development/imaginative-play/). Nature does an amazing job gifting kids with things they need to survive, develop and flourish. So much of what kids do naturally, like play, benefits them but can seem to drive adults crazy.1
Often, as American adults, especially those of the high achieving sort, we don’t like down time for our kids. We equate it with wasting time. We schedule and sign up and max out our family schedules until down time only happens when we crash with an illness or get snowed in. Funny how this same group of us will also hand over technology mindlessly to our kids to keep them occupied when we need it. Allowing kids “free play” doesn’t seem like a worthwhile endeavor. Take the national debate over recess in schools as a prime example. It’s simply too hard to SEE the benefit. “Play looks like a waste of time because it’s not ‘goal directed,’ and parents are,” says Hara Marano, author of “A Nation of Wimps.” After all, kids don’t get extra credit for pretending to be a lion. They can’t put “Played a ton of hide and seek” on a college essay. Nonetheless, play turns out to be a sort of kiddie super-vitamin. It not only makes children happy, it also makes them more focused and, Marano argues, smarter. As she puts it: “Play builds brains.” 1
There are 5 different areas that play has been proven to aid development.
- Social skills. When your child engages in pretend (or dramatic) play, he is actively experimenting with the social roles of life. Through cooperative and role play, he learns how to take turns, share responsibility, communicate, and creatively problem-solve. When your child pretends to be different characters, he has the experience of “walking in someone else’s shoes,” which helps teach the important moral development skill of empathy. Play is dress rehearsal for adulthood, and, before that, for school. At play, kids get endless practice waiting their turn. Self-control gradually becomes second nature. The important concept of “theory of mind,” an awareness that one’s thoughts may differ from those of other persons and that there are a variety of perspectives of which each of us is capable, is closely related to imaginative play .4
- Language skills. Even if kids are playing alone they are often verbalizing “special effects” or conversations amongst others. This verbal imitation process helps your child to make the connection between spoken and written language — a skill that will later help him learn to read. 2
- Emotional skills. Pretend play allows the expression of both positive and negative feelings, through role playing, kids learn what is appropriate in how to deal with and express them. Kids develop the ability to integrate not just their own emotions, but they become aware that others also have feelings and learn how to deal with that as well. Sociodramatic play where kids are completely immersed in a dramatic situation (superheroes, firemen, princesses, etc.) involve highly emotional situations (for example, someone is sick or needs to be saved), letting children practice directing and negotiating action in such situations. Children who engage in more sociodramatic play express more positive emotion (engagement, thoughtfulness, understanding), less negative emotion (selfishness, need for attention, anger) and score higher on tests of emotional regulation and emotional understanding.3
- Thinking skills.Pretend play provides your child with a variety of problems to solve. Your child calls upon important cognitive thinking skills that he will use in every aspect of his life, now and forever.
- Physical. This may or may not be obvious, but most pretend play requires movement of some sort. It may be big and even aerobic, requiring large muscle groups, like games with friends, superheroes, or re-enacting movies. Or on a smaller scale, it may require fine motor skills. Think leggos and small character figurines, cars and dolls. Fine motor skill development is imperative to brain development. As kids swipe screens more than use their hands for grasping and manipulating, we deteriorate this mental growth process.
The link between playing and learning is so strong that some educators are using pretend games to teach math and reading. Now when you watch kids during imaginative play you can feel better that they are “doing something” that’s incredibly helpful. Play is nature’s way of getting kids to do the work of growing up and becoming well rounded, creative adults.
Resources for this blog:
1. PBS Parents website. “Why we should take play seriously” By Lenore Skenazy. http://www.pbs.org/parents/child-development/imaginative-play/
2. PARENT & CHILD MAGAZINE ONLINE. “The Importance of Pretend Play” . Author unknown. http://www.scholastic.com/parents/resources/article/creativity-play/importance-pretend-play
3. Psychology today: Is Pretend Play Good for Kids? by Darcia Narvaez. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/moral-landscapes/201404/is-pretend-play-good-kids
4. Scott Barry Kaufman Ph.D. Psychology today: The Need for Pretend Play in Child Development. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/beautiful-minds/201203/the-need-pretend-play-in-child-development