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The Serious Reasons for Play

Posted on Nov 19, 2013 by

behold the 3 year old brain

Play is the child’s arena.  Little children effortlessly tumble and careen from one burst of delicious activity to the next.  If we had an ounce of good sense, in the presence of The Masters of Play, we would close our grownup mouths and look to our children for guidance.  We would revere and protect their process.

Instead, we dismiss play as our culture takes away recess, signs them up for T-ball or art classes, and tells them to quit running around and put away their toys.

Play is not something you should do only when your work is finished.  It’s not a luxury according to research.  Play is crucial to physical, intellectual, and social-emotional development at all ages…yes, all ages.


Play is Learning in its Purest Form

If it is hard for you to imagine the measurable learning benefits that your child is receiving while they are rolling on the floor snapping their outstretched arms together to gather ping pong balls and pretending to be an alligator, let me spell it out.

  • First, the child is deeply in the moment and joyful.
  • He is in utter control.  He made up the game based on his interests.  He decided the rules, the difficulty, and the duration.
  • There is a mindset of mastery.  He sets a challenge that is a notch or two beyond his skills.
  • His goal with the balls is clear, and feedback is immediate.  He is determined and relentless to  improve.
  • The activity or effort is pleasurable and it’s own reward. No one has offered him a sticker or a trophy.
  • No one had to tell him to practice until he could gather a set number of balls within a certain time.
  • He has become the alligator in his mind.  He applies the alligator facts he has heard or seen to his game. He is an alligator incarnate.
  • He verbalizes with great emotion.  His scenario includes enemies, danger, strength, friends, and success.
  • He is engaged in a state of optimal challenge that combines work, play and love.

Is there any mortal teacher that can create a better lesson for his body, mind, and soul?  No.  Play is his teacher, and it is a perfect match for his immediate ability and interests.

(For some common sense guidelines regarding limit setting with pretend play, you can learn more here.)

We never dare to think that babies are wasting their time babbling and need more formal speech lessons.  When they repeat pulling themselves up to stand time after time, and then plop down on their bottoms with a chortle every day at the couch, we somehow know that it is much more than just cute…don’t we??

The 3-6 year old child is motivated just as strongly as the infant to learn and master their innate skills.  Psychologist and author David Elkind  assures us that play is instinctive and part of the maturation process.

Elkind says, “We cannot prevent children from self-initiated play; they engage in it whenever they can.  The problem is that we have curtailed the time and opportunities for such play.”

In our hurried culture, adults are slashing time for self-motivated, open ended, and imaginative play like no other time.   Between the convenience of electronic entertainment at home, the need for many working parents to sign their children up for “enrichment” in the form of organized activities after school or on Saturdays, and our collective fear of our children falling behind academically, the cards are stacked against play.  Time spent outside in the grass, making up games, and goofing around on the playground are disappearing from many children’s lives.

Play has come to be seen by many as a waste of precious time.marbles

We Mean Well

The efforts by schools and  government to raise academic test scores is a noble one.  It comes from a place of care and concern for our collective futures.  On paper it is logical to think that young children will learn and understand more quickly and efficiently if we just tell them what they need to know and then give them a test to see if they remember it.  On paper it is also logical to think that if young children enjoy moving to music, or making believe, or kicking around a ball in the backyard, that they would really enjoy formal lessons in ballet, acting, or soccer.  Not quite that simple, unfortunately.

We can’t hurry development.  For example, only around the ages of six or seven years old can children see the big picture of strategy and fully understand and follow team rules of play.  If you’ve watched four year old mobs play soccer, you know what I’m talking about.  They can memorize and follow the rules about passing to a teammate, but they don’t really understand why they shouldn’t always have the ball yet.  That’s true even if they can repeat the reason the coach told them word for word.

By the way, children who are driven to multiple soccer (or whatever) games and practices at age four may easily burn out by the time they reach adolescence, which is the age when they might truly thrive at a sport.  We need to proceed with care.

Research is Clear

Academic Rewards:  Teachers feel pressure from parents and the state for students to perform well on achievement tests.  Parents feel pressure from, oh I don’t know–everywhere??  Education has become a bit of a race, so let me tell you some interesting findings, and here you can find a fair comparison of preschool philosophies.

  • Academic skills actually benefit from recess.  Concentration, attitudes toward school, and cognitive function improve with movement.  They decline without it.
  • Children who attended a full-time academic preschool had no reading or math advantage by second grade, BUT they tested to be more anxious, less creative, and had more negative attitudes toward school than preschoolers coming from a play-based program.  It’s not really that simple.
  • A child’s intellectual growth and academic performance are enhanced by dramatic and pretend play.
  • Teachers who are playful in their classrooms are able to tap in to emotion.  Children learn everything better when they care.

Social and Emotional Rewards: 

  • Play offers pathways to love and social connection.
  • Preschoolers learn to negotiate, lead, and follow.
  • Play allows slightly older children to learn about friendship, cooperation, and competition.
  • Play teaches confidence in decision making and independence.

Physical Rewards:

  • Physical play creates more automatic connections within the brain through repetition.
  • Play coordinates and strengthens large and small muscles.  Fine motor ability is important for academic learning.
  • Physical play helps strengthen children’s hearts, lungs, bones, and digestion.
  • Physical play helps children maintain a healthy weight.
  • Sensory skills are enhanced when a child uses their entire body for learning.    pretend play

Play sounds like “brain food” to me!


Try to Remember

We have all experienced this feeling of extreme focus and satisfaction that young children feel every day, but we probably don’t understand it’s significance.  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (chick-sent-me-high) calls it “flow.”  Flow is that state of optimal challenge that combines work, play and love.  The idea of flow is identical to the feeling of being in the zone or in the groove.  Try to remember what you were mastering the last time you lost track of time and space doing something you love.  Whether we call it Flow or Play, it matters to all people…of all ages.

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