Why Kids Need to Play

Why Kids Need to Play

We wanted to kick the New Year off with something fun. And what could be more fun than PLAY?!?!

Play is not only fun. It also helps children to have better physical and mental health and to grow their brains.  When you see a toddler dumping sand out of a truck, or a preschooler building a house with Duplo blocks, or a school age kid kicking a soccer ball around, they are not only enjoying themselves but also building physical skills, like hand-eye coordination and the abilities to move better, and exercising their mental muscles by learning things like cause and effect or how to estimate size and distance.

Play also helps children build skills that will help them learn and be able to focus in school. Researchers have found that play actually changes the building blocks of the brain–cells called neurons–in the prefrontal cortex.  This is the part of the brain that helps us to solve problems, plan ahead, and control our feelings and behaviors. By watching and testing other animals, scientists have found that playing leads to growth in the prefrontal cortex.

Play also leads to better social skills. Scientists think that this may be because, when children play, they have to make up rules, negotiate with each other, take turns and figure out how to avoid hurting others.

But here’s an important point: the kind of play really matters. Free play is what helps to build brains. That is play in which children agree on the rules themselves (instead of having an adult tell them or referee) and plan out roles, activities, and story lines without adult input. Adults can play with the kids, but they should not direct the play. Free play can include all sorts of things such as art activities, dress-up, building models, pick-up games of basketball, soccer, or whatever, baking, making jewelry–the sky really is the limit. The key point is that it is unstructured and allows children to use their imaginations, make their own decisions, and work things out among themselves (although children can play alone, too).

The tricky thing is allowing children enough time to play.  One study found that children have lost about 12 hours of free time a week so they are playing about 25% less than they used to. And there are a lot of things competing with free play these days, like screens and organized sports.

So how can you make sure that your child gets enough free playtime. Here are a couple of tips:

  • Make sure that they have lots of materials like blocks, craft supplies, and things that they can use to build, create, and imagine with. These don’t have to be fancy or expensive things. A box of old clothes can be a dress-up treasure chest or pieces of (not splintery) wood left over from an adult project can be a construction site.
  • Don’t try to direct your child’s play. Let her figure out what she wants to do by herself. And if friends seem to be arguing, give them space to work out their issues. You might need to intervene if someone is getting hurt or bullied. But try to let the children work things out among themselves as much as possible.
  • Try not to overschedule your child with structured activities, like classes and organized sports. Some of that is fine. But remember to leave time for play.
  • Try to limit screen time. Kids will be able to figure out things to do (even if they claim to be dying of boredom). And solving the problem of how to amuse themselves will help grow their brains!

So, if you are making New Year’s resolutions, or just thinking about things you’d like to do this year, here’s a fun one for you and your children: PLAY MORE!!!!

Image: © Ana Blazic Pavlovic | Dreamstime.com

Katherine Pears
Dr. Katherine Pears is a senior scientist at Oregon Social Learning Center (OSLC). She earned her Ph.D in clinical psychology and has worked with OSLC since 1998. Katherine is the principal investigator and co-developer of the Kids In Transition to Schools (KITS) program. Currently, she oversees all the clinical and research activities for KITS. When she’s not in her office, you’ll find Katherine in the kitchen whipping up her latest creation or outdoors hiking a scenic trail.

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