The Science of Playing with Our Kids

Most parents probably already know that the American Academy of Pediatricians calls the current decline of playtime for our children “a national crisis.” Their report emphasizes, “Play is so important to optimal child development that it has been recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right of every child…we must advocate for the changes specific to the need of each child’s social and environmental context that would enhance the opportunities for play, ” (American Academy of Pediatrics, “The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds,” 2007).

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Yet even with our pediatricians calling for changes, only 36% of American schoolchildren meet doctors’ recommendations for physical activity (Robert Wood Johnson Foundation report Recess Rules, 2007).

“Physical activity and free play are essential to maintaining a healthy weight and supporting cognitive, physical, social, and emotional development and well-being. Play enhances self-regulation, empathy, and group management skills” (Stanford School of Medicine, “Building Generation Play,” 2007; Hirsh-Pasek, et al., A Mandate for Playful Learning in Preschool, Oxford University Press, 2009).

Aletha J. Solter, Ph.D., author of Helping Young Children Flourish, which includes research on the value of play for children, says play “is the primary means of learning during early childhood”(1989; p. 91).  According to Solter’s research, there are at least three different types of play to consider when examining young children’s behavior and interactions with adults and others; fantasy play, socio-dramatic play, role reversals. Fantasy play is the “Let’s pretend” we often associate with childhood. Can you still remember what it felt like when you were ‘being’ a fireman, veterinarian, or fairy princess as a child?  When this type of play involves two or more children, researchers call it socio-dramatic play. And role reversal occurs during those surprisingly beneficial periods when our children direct the make-believe where, for instance, they are the Doctor, and we become the patient, following along and supporting the imaginary hospital they invite us to share. By playing role reversals, children unload the stress of always being the less powerful one and the frustration of having to learn so much for the first time.

As children master the adult world, play helps them practice behaviors and situations that lead to enhanced confidence and the resilience needed to face future challenges. Undirected play allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts and to learn self-advocacy skills (American Academy of Pediatrics, “The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds,” 2007). More in-depth research can be found in The Journal of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. The March 2005 edition carries an article, “Making the Case for Play Policy – Research-Based Reasons to Support Play-Based Environments” by Dolores A. Stegelin. The article cites numerous additional sources of research that backup the importance of play in children’s lives.

Yet play is still so much more than the above research quantifies. Warm, relaxed, attentive, playful give and take with a caring adult is good for all children in a deep and satisfying way. It’s impossible to overestimate the benefits that children get from this type of play. In the UK recently, a carefully designed study demonstrated that adults playing with children, where the children led and created the play, measurably changed—in a good way—the children’s long-term neurobiological development. The research was done with infants who were not thriving before this small amount of supported play was introduced to their lives. An hour a week of dedicated adult-child play was proven to improve the development of the emotional self-regulation skills that these children needed for successful relationships throughout their lives.

“A randomized controlled study of 129 children, ages 9 to 24 months, exhibiting stunted development found that weekly play sessions had significant long-term benefits (to age 17) for psychosocial functioning, including reduced anxiety and depression and fewer attention problems” (Susan P. Walker et al., “Effects of Psychosocial Stimulation and Dietary Supplementation in Early Childhood on Psychosocial Functioning in Late Adolescence,” British Medical Journal, July 2006).

The well-respected child psychologist and author, Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.D., has found that play is not only an effective way to help children learn and develop social skills, but an effective way for parents to nurture a bond with their children and for parents to discipline children effectively.  “Playful parenting is a way to enter the child’s world on the child’s terms, in order to foster closeness, confidence and connection” (2001; p. 2).

And “It has been found that parents can be very effective play therapists for their children at home.  If your child has experienced a traumatic event, you can encourage dramatic play about the event by providing toys or props along with your own participation and loving attention” (Solter 1989 p. 97 – 98).

“The third purpose for play for children, and perhaps the one that is most uniquely human, is to recover from emotional distress.  By pretending, or re-telling the story the scene can be re-created.  This time the child is in charge.  Through playing it out, emotional healing takes place” (Cohen, 2001; p. 6).

One of the most useful things I have learned about this vital play time, is how to work it into our schedule. I follow the simple “Special Time” directions they teach at Hand in Hand Parenting. I use a timer. And I play for amounts of time as small as five-to-fifteen minutes. Sure, more is great, but you’d be amazed what a difference you can make with just five minutes, the way Parenting by Connection instructor, Tosha Schore talks about in this blog post.

What have you learned from the science of play that’s changed the way you interact with your kids?


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