Summer is coming and if, like parents everywhere, you are busy planning your kids’ summer activities, be sure to allow for plenty of unstructured time. Experts agree that for children, adolescents and teens play is not merely idle time; it is necessary for healthy development. While you are playing with your kids you experience the same benefits as them. Play your summer away!
Play develops healthy brains.
Seventy percent of brain development occurs after birth up until the early 20s. Initially, play creates connections between the brain and nerve cells, which helps children develop gross motor skills (walking, running, jumping) and fine motor skills (writing, manipulating small tools, detailed hand work). Those connections continue to develop into adulthood, affecting the part of the brain responsible for planning and decision-making.
Play – particularly make believe – also develops the brain’s executive function, our ability to manage time and attention, to plan and organize, to remember details, to decide what is an appropriate response (incorporating self-control and discipline), to make sense of our emotions and to apply past experiences to the present. These are the skills that enable kids to do well in school, get along well with others, and make good decisions.
Imaginative play helps kids develop empathy and compassion. By trying on different roles, kids gain understanding of other perspectives. (Hartwell-Walker, 2015)
Play spurs creativity
Adults often get stymied when asked to be creative. Our need to be right, to appear smart, and to avoid embarrassment or shame makes it extremely difficult to express ideas that aren’t fully formed and to try things outside our comfort zones. Children, on the other hand, don’t automatically have these constraints and are not limited by the thought that something is not possible. Play helps children maintain creative, innovative thinking into adulthood, not just in the arts, but in all aspects of work and life as well. (Hartwell-Walker, 2015)
Play is therapeutic
Play is a necessary opportunity for children to take control of their world. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (APA), without enough time devoted to free play, kids can begin to show symptoms of anxiety, including:
- Avoiding other people
- Lack of appetite
- Disrupted sleep
- Stomach aches
Anyone who has ever tried to have a toddler in an adult situation, such as a fancy restaurant or an office setting, for any length of time has likely had a taste of this. For children who have little or no playtime, the impact can be great. “It’s true that school work and schedules teach important life skills. But most experts agree that children’s health and everyday progress stand to suffer when scheduled activities leave no room for ‘free’ playtime,” the APA website reports.
Play is essential for both physical and emotional healing, says Amy Wortham, a child life specialist at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Wortham explains that play allows children to feel “normal” at a time or in a place when their situation disrupts their regular life and makes them feel different from their peers. “Playing is the way that kids learn about their world. It helps them process and experience it on their own terms,” she says. (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2015)
Play can sometimes be frustrating for busy, tired parents, but because expressing oneself through play makes perfect sense to kids, play therapy is a useful tool for children dealing with complex emotional issues. At Carapace Counseling, we use play therapy to help children process anxiety, trauma (including abuse), anger, grief, and loss. Sand tray therapy, a form of play therapy we use, works well for adults, too.
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2015). The Benefits of Play. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 19, 2016, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/the-benefits-of-play/
American Academy of Pediatrics (2015). Caution! Children at Play! healthychildren.org. Retrieved on on May 19, 2016, from https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/toddler/fitness/Pages/Caution-Children-at-Play.aspx