Let Them Play

group of children playing

June 11 was International Day of Play, and there has been a growing amount of research that says children need more play to be able to develop normally. There are some ideas postulated suggesting why children don’t play as much these days or as much as they used to, but the science is clear that there are benefits to introducing more play in our children’s lives.

Here are five benefits to play to which you may not have thought of as readily.

1. We know that play is great for children’s physical development, it gets them outside, it gets them moving, it helps them to be fitter, it activates their bodies and activates their minds. It’s a great and simple method of addressing the obesity epidemic in children in our society.

2. Play in an adventurous way teaches kids how to manage situations and how to evaluate risk and what to do about it. There is some criticism that our current way of creating playgrounds is too safe and that children no longer get the experience of having to navigate acceptable and minor risks. Why is this important?

It is because learning how to manage risks at their age that are manageable, teaches them how to regulate anxiety and teaches them how to plan and strategise. These are key skills that are missing in our children today who might have a diagnosis of ADHD for example.

3. There are clear benefits of play to developing the skills of socialisation. Our society is now more afraid of allowing our kids to be outside with minimal supervision and our infrastructure is increasingly more geared towards cars and other vehicles that there is less space for kids to play outside the house. What this does is it robs the children of the opportunity to practice their social skills. These are opportunities to practice how to share opportunities, practice how to read others and practice non-verbal social skills. It teaches them how to navigate friendships. These are skills that are crucial for their development and function as adults.

4. The fourth benefit of play is one you may not have thought about a great deal. Play is important for learning regulation of emotional systems in the brain. There is research that shows play dampens down your body’s response to stress. One saying goes, it’s difficult to be defensive when you are being playful. In today’s increasing prevalence of mental illness in children and adolescents, this benefit of play will become more and more crucial.

The human brain is still wired to develop social skills and learn social communication from face to face experiences. However, children are increasingly growing up in a world where their social interactions are becoming more and more digital. This is a problem because our brains are not geared to learn social skills in this manner yet. Perhaps our mammalian evolution might develop in this way in 100 years, but at this time, our children still need face to face embodied experiences of play and social interaction for normal brain development.

5. The fifth and possibly most crucial benefit of play is the opportunity for parents and children to grow their relationship and build trust. There is an overwhelming body of evidence that children who do not have positive relationships with their carers are the ones that suffer from mental illness most.

Our world is becoming more and more isolated and parents are becoming more and more busy. The opportunities for play go out the window. What then happens is a pattern of interaction between parents and child where a greater proportion of their interactions involve parents disciplining their children or setting limits. These are necessary interactions to maintain safety and boundaries but they also need to be balanced off by playfulness and positive interaction.

Isolating from the family, increasing conflict and breakdowns in parent-child or sibling relationships is one of the most common reasons for presenting to mental health services.

Here are some ideas that may help increase play in your little village:

  1. Parental Self Care – the adults in the household need to look after themselves in order to be playful. It is hard to be playful when you are struggling to manage your own stress that comes from work, finances or life in general. Notice if you are able to be playful yourself in your own world. If not, you are likely to find it hard to do this at home.
  2. Incorporate play in a routine and structured way – play can be incorporated into every day activities. Depending on the age of your children, you can introduce playfulness into activities you normally do. For example, eating together, cooking together, regular game nights, regular movie nights or even bedtime stories or bath time for younger kids. Set up areas for free play like an art or craft corner. Structure in times to be present together.
  3. Go Outside – there is a huge body of evidence supporting the idea that being in nature improves human wellbeing and reduces mental health symptoms. This doesn’t have to be a huge planned activity. It can be the adult setting a routine being outside to have their cup of coffee or setting up a sitting place or even a garden.
  4. Digital Play – if the kids are using smart phones, use this method to be playful. Learn how to use Snapchat, know about memes or send them pictures of funny things you see. Communicating through the day in a playful way not only creates a light atmosphere, it may be a way to help heal previous arguments or conflicts and is a powerful way of letting your child know that they are on your mind even when you are away.

In summary, today being the International Day of Play, let us remind ourselves of the importance of play. We may consider play as something that’s just fun and less important but the research evidence suggests that it is one of the most important aspects of child development.

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Relational Minds Child and Family Mental Health Clinic provides professional support services in Victoria for parents, caregivers and families struggling with the mental health and emotional wellbeing of children.

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