Remember the days when we would go out into the woods, build forts, ride bikes all day, explore fields and neighborhoods, and spend hours playing, creating, and imagining?
Remember the days when we would go out into the woods, build forts, ride bikes all day, explore fields and neighborhoods, and spend hours playing, creating, and imagining? It seems our world has lost the art of play. Busy schedules, the convenience of technology, and so many other responsibilities to manage have led to less opportunities for creative play. While this may seem like simply less opportunities for old recreational activities and the opportunity for new types of interaction and social engagement, we find that less opportunities for creative play can detrimentally impact early childhood brain development. Play helps children exercise the not only their bodies, but also the “muscles” of the nervous system, which in turn helps them develop stronger neural pathways in the brain. Because children learn best through play and exploration, a lack of these opportunities can negatively impact brain development not only in a social-emotional context, but with regard to motor functioning, sensory processing, and the development of executive functioning skills.
Why is this? Our brains are social organs, meaning that our brains learn most successfully through experiences with other people – by doing, rather than by talking or observing. Similarly, the brain “muscles” that are used during play – planning, organizing, problem-solving, creating, and engaging are the very executive functions that are housed in the frontal lobe. The frontal lobe is the part of the brain directly behind a person’s forehead – these executive functioning skills are our highest levels capabilities, and are the skills that we want, and expect, most people to utilize on a daily basis. Take into consideration the act of building a fort – a child must envision the fort in his or her mind, identify and gather the necessary materials, organize and plan how to put them together, problem-solve aspects of the project that don’t work along the way, and physically compose and build the fort. That’s a tremendous amount of brain energy used, and a vast number of executive-functioning skills being exercised! Imagine the many ways in which this one activity can strengthen a child’s brain functioning and capacity.
So what happens when opportunities for play are diminished or removed altogether? We may see children who display more impulsivity, less self-awareness and self-regulation, less capacity for creativity, and less engagement with the world around them. Perhaps that sounds familiar. It seems that many children in today’s society function in this very manner. Of course, not all of these challenges can be attributed completely to limited opportunities for play, but they are certainly in part impacted by this.
How do we enhance and incorporate play time into our busy schedules? Part of the answer is taking time to play together. Not only do our children need these opportunities for growth and development, but they specifically need to experience learning and growing through play together with us. What does this mean or look like? This can be incorporated into daily life in many different ways – we can make daily activities (grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning) into games. We can play our way through challenging tasks, we can time how long it takes to finish something, or race one another to complete a task. We can also take a 30-second pause to notice the world through our children’s eyes – they often see the beauty around us that we sometimes miss. We can let go of distractions (phones, emails, screens) and choose to have intentional time together. We can go outside and explore our surroundings with curiosity. Rather than teaching or attempting to have our children demonstrate their knowledge and skills (“what color is this? can you set up the house nicely? where does the furniture go?”), we can simply join our children in their play and follow their lead. We can pretend and go on exciting adventures in the backyard. We can do cooking experiments or find shapes in the clouds.
We all have many demands and time constraints. But with play, quality outweighs quantity. A few minutes of engaged, intentional play time with our kids will carry much weight, and time for them to explore and imagine will have a big impact on their health and development. So let’s reframe our perspective on play. Play is not just an outlet for creative expression or a “break” from everyday life. Play, especially creative, imaginative, and uninhibited play, is the context in which children learn and grow. Functioning in the school environment and participation in daily living activities are the places and opportunities for practicing or implementing these skills; play is the context and place for learning, growing, and building these skills. Let’s recognize the importance of play and engagement with one another, and allow our bodies, minds, and hearts to flourish. Let’s bring back the days of fort building, nature exploring, bike riding, and finger painting. We may very well find ourselves healthier, more engaged, and more satisfied with life as a whole.