The Importance of Play
By Dr. Jenn Berman
In a report issued by The Alliance for Childhood it was revealed that kindergarteners’ play time has greatly diminished. The study found that children spend four to six times as long being instructed and tested as they do in free play.
In the hopes of creating a smart child, many parents discount the importance of play. But play is crucial to developing minds. Studies show that play promotes problem solving, creativity, learning, attention span, language development, self-regulation, social skills, increases IQ and even helps children work through difficult life events. Play is the “work” of children.
Here are eight reasons parents need to fight for play in the schools and make sure their children have free play at home.
Play develops problem solving abilities. Researchers put a desirable toy in a clear box and told four and five year olds to get the toy out of the box without moving out of their chairs or leaning towards it. One group of kids was allowed to play with sticks and toys, while a second group was shown a solution to a problem but were not allowed to play and a third group did not get either opportunity. The children who were allowed to play did much better than either of the other two groups. They worked more eagerly and persistently and demonstrated better problem-solving abilities.
Children get to experiment with being in charge. Throughout their day kids are told what to do. During play children get to experience what it feels like to be in charge and gain a sense of mastery.
Play with other children helps social development. Play helps children learn important social skills like taking turns, collaboration, following rules, empathy, self-regulation, and impulse control.
Play helps children assimilate emotional experiences. Pretend play, in particular, helps children integrate emotional experiences they need to work through. It allows them to express the things that they may not be sophisticated enough to talk about with adults.
It improves concentration. Attention and concentration are learned skills. Play is one of the most natural enjoyable ways for a child to begin developing these skills. We have all seen a child so lost in play that they don’t even hear a parent calling her name. This focus is the same skill that one needs years later to write a term paper, listen to a lecture or perform a piano concerto.
Helps develop mathematical thinking. Because play teaches children about the relationships between things, it actually helps develop the type of reasoning that aids in mathematical performance. According to Professor Ranald Jerrell, an expert in development of mathematical thinking, “Experimental research on play shows a strong relationship between play, the growth of mathematical understanding, and improved mathematical performance.”
Play promotes language development. Play, especially dramatic play, requires children to use and be exposed to language. In a study of four-year-olds who frequently engaged in socio-dramatic play, researchers found that when compared to a non-socio-dramatic play group, these child exhibited an increase in the total number of words used, the length or their utterances, and the complexity of their speech.
The repetition of play creates neural pathways. Each time a child performs a play activity, like stacking blocks, the synapses between brain cells are activated and over time the level of chemical needed to make that connection becomes less and less, making it easier to perform the task.
In a rush to give our children academic and intellectual advantages, misguided schools and parents are pushing children to focus on reading, writing and testing. This, however, comes at the detriment of play which is so crucial to their development.
In a study of academic preschools and traditional play-focused preschools, researcher Kathy Hirsh-Pasek found that there were no differences in the intellectual skills of the children in either group. She did, however, find that the children in the academic group were more anxious and less creative than the children in the other group.
Dr. Jenn Berman is a Marriage, Family and Child Therapist in private practice in Los Angeles. She is the author of the LA Times best selling books SuperBaby: 12 Ways to Give Your Child a Head Start in the First 3 Years and The A to Z Guide to Raising Happy Confident Kids.