Humans are genetically wired to play, particularly children, but its benefits have never been fully assessed. We all know that play involves a state of being that can range from outright excitement and joy to quiet, sustained pleasure. In other words, it always feels good.
Unfortunately play, especially the type of creative, freewheeling play that children are so naturally inclined towards, is increasingly seen as unproductive in today’s competitive world. Society tends to praise work-related activities and make people feel guilty about playing. Children used to have a lot more freedom to play in an unstructured way, but playtime has gradually been eroded in favour of structured extra-mural activities, which are perceived to have greater benefits.
The evidence, however, suggests that this approach is counterproductive and even harmful. Children often learn more effectively in non academic, relaxed environments and while they are having fun. After all, many children begin school already speaking two or more languages. And yet how many of us learnt a language at school for many years and never came close to fluency?
Research suggests that play is one of our most valuable activities and essential for brain development and mental and physical health, particularly for children. Through play humans learn many different physical, mental and social skills, including creative problem-solving abilities and how to manage and transform negative emotions and experiences. Play is a powerful antidote to antisocial or violent emotions. Children who regularly play learn how to give and take, and how to respond in a variety of nonaggressive ways to challenging or unexpected situations.
Whether playing alone or with others, quietly or with enthusiasm, play is the way children explore and make sense of their world. Through play children also develop effective language and communication skills and expand their imagination and creativity.
Children who play regularly are consistently happier, better adjusted, more co-operative and more popular with their peers than those who play less.
Things you can do
• Encourage children to play outdoors more. Get them making gardens, playing in sand pits, building tree houses, climbing trees, or playing on jungle gyms. Allow them to be adventurous and take risks in their play. As nerve wracking as this may be for parents, it is how children learn about themselves and develop confidence and physical skills.
• Many children spend too much of their free time in an artificially created cyber or video world which can create a dislocation from the physical world we live in. A ‘No Child Left Inside’ campaign is underway worldwide to introduce more balance into children’s lives in this respect.
• Encourage children to invent their own games which will stimulate their creativity and imagination. This is vital for full brain development. Discourage dependence on passive entertainment such as TV.
• Encourage a wide range of play activities and games that preferably involve other children and provide different mental challenges and skills. Crafts, hobbies, and games are better than toys that cannot be played with creatively. The most expensive toys don’t necessarily provide the greatest stimulation and enjoyment.
• Make sure several of the regular play activities involve physical exercise, as this will bring additional health benefits and physical skills. Children need at least one hour of moderate physical activity each day. Team games, like football, also provide safe ways to blow off steam and deal with feelings of anger, resentment, and frustration.