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The Power of Play: Building Young Children’s Resilience, Healthy Development and Learning

June 25, 2020

For all children, play is a child's "work" and is essential in developing the foundation for social, emotional, and cognitive skills. A wealth of research shows that unstructured play is a fundamental necessity for children to thrive physically, emotionally, mentally and socially.

The importance of play is something that I have stressed repeatedly in my own educational work. Especially for young children, creative play gives them the opportunity to interact with the world around them in a way that focused instruction does not replicate.  From birth, babies and adults communicate through engaging in playful interactions such as peek-a-boo, patty-cake and often by imitating baby’s coos and babbles – all ways of strengthening social bonds and building children’s brain circuits. These playful interactions form the emotional scaffolding necessary for healthy development.

Why Play Matters

As adults, when we typically think of play, we embrace the thought of escaping from work and relish the fantasies of just being able to have fun. Unfortunately for us, we tend to believe that play and work are mutually exclusive. To children, however, play is their “work,” and they take it very seriously. Play is an essential part of a child’s life for their overall health, their learning and their well-being, particularly during times of stress. Through creative play, children become independent in learning the powerful lesson of pursuing their own ideas to a successful conclusion. Play allows them to internalize important concepts and act them out in real life in an active, enjoyable, flexible manner that focuses on the process of learning, not the product. Play is the vehicle through which children process, work out and work through their emotional and social world when faced with daily experiences or new events. These experiences include a parent being away, a pet being sick, not being able to see a friend, or having to deal with the changes and challenges created by the pandemic and social distancing. Play provides opportunities to create ways to be in charge and in control during such times of uncertainty, anxiety and stress. As a result, play enables children to acquire some critical developmental skills that can serve them for the rest of their lives. 

What Is Play

There are many definitions of “play,” but when thinking about young children’s play it is important that it be imaginative, creative and self-directed by the children involved such as make-believe and pretend play with materials decided and chosen by the child.  Through imaginative play, children also learn self-regulation and impulse control. When children are able to design their own play they become the director, producer and actor with a sense of agency and control.  Where else can a child have such control over themselves when most often a child is being told what to do, when to do it and often how it should be done? Allowing children to self-direct their play gives them creative control and ownership of their environment, allowing them to express themselves in an uninhibited manner. In turn, this feeds their curiosity, stretches their mind and promotes further learning. While play is not the only important aspect of early childhood learning, it helps to promote a number of educational outcomes for children that more formal, instructor-directed learning does not. For instance:

  • Dramatic play develops self-control and self-regulation. While play is often associated with freedom, dramatic play is actually self-regulated. Take the example of children playing policemen: If a child begins crying, other children might point out that firemen don’t cry and self-control must be exercised if the child is to continue to be a fireman. Children can explore different roles and ideas through imaginative play, including new rule sets for how to interact with each other and their environment. Maintaining the narrative gives them the opportunity to practice self-regulation within the rules they create.
  • Role-playing increases a child’s concentration and attention span. Research shows that a child’s ability to control their impulses is stronger when imagining a dramatic scene than a non-play situation.  When asked to stand still for as long as possible, 4-year-old children typically did not make it past one minute, but when asked to imagine themselves as castle guards the children stood still for as long as four minutes.

As a whole, research proves that creative play helps to develop and strengthen children’s emotional, cognitive and social skills while fostering capacities for problem solving, perspective taking, empathy, compassion and resilience. Creative and imaginative play further promotes and enhances concentration, self-control and regulation – all critical in achieving academic, social and personal success throughout life.

With the presence of parents as facilitators in helping to extend their child’s imaginative play, the child establishes a foundation of independence in the knowledge that their ideas are valued and valuable and can successfully work out situations while developing critical thinking and practicing problem solving. When parents at home can promote playful interactions, they are also not only helping to build their children’s developing brains but also are helping to reduce tension and stress while building resilience, strength and positive coping capacities – just what we all need right now, while having fun too!

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