The Importance of Play

Oct 2, 2016

Most of us know that children need time to play. What is a child’s “occupation” if not play and learning? But how much unstructured time do they get in their lives? There are magical moments to be had in this unplanned unguided time. Time to be able to pretend and interact with other children and to learn how to amuse themselves. So many of our children are overscheduled with organized activity, and some parents even report social pressure to involve them in all kinds of extra-curricular classes and groups. Some children become easily bored because they have not developed the skills necessary to amuse themselves. These are learning moments, chances to figure out how to play without being entertained. So often it is tempting to offer some kind of technology to play with or turn on the TV. Do our children get the chance to just play, to be themselves and explore where their imagination takes them? Let’s look at why these precious nuggets of childhood are so important to overall development and why we need to make them a priority. What are kids gaining through their playtime?

What exactly is play? Play takes many forms, and there is a lot of information out there on the different kinds such as, social play, creative play, dramatic play, role play, communication play, motor play, object play, etc. Just by looking at the different descriptors above, you can see the variety of play children can access. Depending on the child’s personality, they will gravitate towards what they enjoy or feel successful doing. One kid may want to play sports, another may love drama. Physical education at school is usually highly structured as are soccer, piano lessons, dance and art classes. Even if the child is having fun, we are not referring to this type of activity where there is an adult guiding them. We are looking at the type of play a child experiences when not told what to do or how to do it.

Think back to your childhood and what were some of your favorite memories and activities. Are they during class time or when you were on your own, perhaps with a friend? A child is actively learning as they work through different problems in play. Maybe it is as straightforward as learning construction skills with LEGO’s or figuring out how to share and solve disputes with a sibling or friend. Did you ever build a “fort” out of sheets or cushions? Play dress up? Collect bugs in the backyard? All of these are wonderful experiences full of lessons. One of the most important lessons a child learns in unstructured playtime is the ability to wait, to develop delayed gratification. Functional independent adults need this skill as much as any other. The world does not give us what we want when we want it. Most of the time, we must work for the desired result, and sometimes that result is not what is anticipated – that’s real life.

During play, we learn how to problem solve for ourselves, we learn about the world around us, we develop communication skills and our imaginations. We learn to make plans and carry them out. When our plans don’t work the way we hoped, we learn to deal with frustration, adapt and move on. Many of the children we see in the clinic need help with their play skills for different reasons such as motor issues, dyspraxia (difficulty motor planning), or difficulty with communication . But these children also need their time to work on the skills gained and to learn that they will not be “saved” each time they get stuck. Perseverance and self-reliance are two gifts you will be giving your child by making them wait a little while for your assistance.

There is no reason to completely avoid helping your child or joining in their play, but do so consciously. What this means is to pay attention to how quickly you respond and exactly how you respond. Maybe tell your child you will be there soon when asked to assist, and each time add 30 seconds, hoping your child will learn perseverance during the time it takes you to come help. Help them problem solve by asking what they tried already instead of jumping in and completing the task. Lead them to other directions to try and let them finish themselves successfully. We can only learn so much self-reliance when someone else does the work. If you are joining in their playtime, let your child lead even if it’s not the “right” way to play with a toy or game. This will help them gain self-confidence and leadership skills. Then make sure you take a turn, modeling appropriate social skills.

One of the most special moments to be had in parenting is discovering who your child is when he or she is given a chance to independently shine, when they make their own decisions and learn to rely on themselves. If you need more ideas of how to help your child learn some of these skills, remember to ask your therapist. They get to know your child’s abilities well and can help advise you on some approaches you can use at home that have been successful in therapy sessions. Whoever thought that “child’s play” was so complicated?!

Nancy E.A. Weiss, MOT, OTR/L

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