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?


Parent Science 101 (Part One) – Connection

Connection is essential to raise healthy, capable, successful children. But don’t take my word for it. There is lots of fascinating science on the subject that makes surprisingly good reading.

New babyFor example, Dr. Daniel Siegel of the UCLA School of Medicine, said in a 2001 article, “the infant is born into the world genetically programmed to connect with caregivers who will become ‘attachment figures’ in the child’s life”. According to Siegel’s research, children who experience a strong attachment early in life do better as they grow up. “Longitudinal studies have found that securely attached children appear to have a number of positive outcomes in their development. These include enhanced emotional flexibility, social functioning and cognitive abilities.”

Lawrence J. Cohen, PH.D. and author of Playful Parenting uses the simple metaphor of a cup. A child who feels empty inside because of having a frustrating day, goes to their attachment figure to fill up.

Dorothy Corkille Briggs, in Your Child’s Self-Esteem, explains that “every child needs periodic genuine encounters with his parents. A genuine encounter is simply focused attention. It is attention with a special intensity born of direct, personal involvement. Vital contact means being intimately open to the particular, unique qualities of your child” (1975, p. 64).

And it’s not just an emotional need. Connecting with adults who love them is an essential factor in the physical development of children’s brains. The growth of the brain is dependent on experiencing a relationship with a caring adult. “Relationships that are ‘connecting’ and allow for collaboration appear to offer children a wealth of interpersonal closeness that supports the development of many domains, including social, emotional, and cognitive functioning” (Siegel, 2001; p. 78).

Developing a close connection with a child doesn’t just encourage the child to develop skills but actually programs the brain to use what it learns well. Siegel, in further research, tells us, “In fact, experience shapes brain structure. How we treat our children changes who they are and how they develop. Their brains need parental involvement. Nature needs nurture.” (Siegel, 2004; p. 34).

No pressure, folks, but that game of peek-a-boo you just played built new neural connections in your baby’s brain. The deep breath you took before yelling at the teenager who’s pushing all your buttons just allowed them a moment to practice regulating their own emotional states. What you do to promote connection, even the very small things, matters.

The Education Training Research Associates, (ETR) with funding from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, conducted a literature review on the effects of parents developing a secure connection with their children early in life. Their resulting paper provides an excellent guide for understanding the true impact a strong parent child connection can have on children.

ETR’s review of over 600 research studies concludes that Parent Child Connectedness is the “super-protective factor” against adverse outcomes in adolescence. PCC is the single strongest indicator that an adolescent will reach adulthood without experiencing teen pregnancy or violence, without becoming addicted to drugs or tobacco, and without dropping out of high school.

I know that a strong and secure connection between you and the children you love is essential for all of you to flourish. And being a parent myself, I know it isn’t always easy. That’s why I’m here to help.

This article was first published on the Hand in Hand Parenting website.