Spending hours holed up in a DIY cubby house playing make-believe as a child is a memory that many of us undoubtedly possess. Sandcastles, hide-and-seek, chase, playing with Barbie or Ken – while the exact type of play we engage in varies according to culture, the essence of play is always the same: free, uninhibited, creative exploration of the world and others around us.
Play is considered so important to optimal human development that the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights has listed it as the right of every child, but sadly it remains a privilege in many communities around the world, with child labour, education, hectic schedules and parental fears the reasons for its diminishing presence.
In recent years schools around the world have seen a spike in the percentage of young people diagnosed with ADHD. The reason? A decrease in the time allocated to free play and recess due to increasing educational demands, together with the growing amount of time spent sitting upright in a seat. Children just aren’t moving enough – and it’s becoming a problem.
Play is absolutely essential to a child’s development because it contributes to their cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being. It enables them to care for others and the environment, develop important communication skills, foster creativity, and also develop physical skills, among other things. Play also offers an ideal opportunity for parents to engage fully with their children as well as the wider community, offering opportunities for social interaction and cohesion. It’s a win-win situation!
WHAT DO WE MEAN BY ‘PLAY’?
Now this is where things get a little tricky. Many adults believe P.E. classes or physical exercise are sufficient outlets for energetic children, and while this is true to a point, physical education doesn’t deliver the same benefits as the free, unguided play – the kind only possible during recess or free time.
Why is this? Play, by definition, is a physical or mental leisure activity undertaken purely for enjoyment or amusement and has no other objective. Play is non-literal, imaginative, marked off in some way from reality, and is subject to the desires and feelings of the person playing – and none other. Physical education classes are structured and rely mostly on adult-imposed rules, meaning they are not allowing children the opportunity to creatively entertain themselves. Experts agree that unstructured, free play is the best type of play for young children, allowing them to use their imagination and move at their own pace.
Examples of unstructured, free play include:
- imaginative games – e.g. making cubby houses with boxes or blankets, dressing up or playing make-believe
- exploring play spaces such as cupboards, backyards, parks, playgrounds and so forth.
- creative play alone or with others, including artistic or musical games
Structured play, on the other hand, is more organised and is usually led by an adult.
- water familiarisation classes or swimming lessons
- modified sports – e.g. Aussie Hoops basketball, Come and Try Rugby, and Auskick football
- storytelling groups at the local library
- dance, music or drama classes
- family board or card games
THE BENEFITS OF PLAY
Perhaps the most widely documented benefit of free play on children is its impact on mental health.
In a paper published in the ‘American Journal of Play’ in 2011, it was claimed that the more play children experience, the more confident they will become.
“In play, children themselves must decide what to do and how, and they must solve their own problems… and thereby develop competence and confidence” the researcher wrote.
Apparently, play improves memory and stimulates the growth of the cerebral cortex. An experiment conducted on rats by neuroscientists in 1964 found as much – that rats raised stimulating environments had bigger brains than those who were not, and were smarter too – although this same experiment has not yet been mimicked on humans.
It was, however, found that play and exploration definitely trigger in young people the secretion of BDNF – a substance essential for the growth of brain cells. In 2014, researchers at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, also found time spent in the classroom might be less important than time spent playing because the experience of play changes the connections of the neurons at the front end of the brain. Without play experience, those neurons aren’t changed.
Studies have also revealed a link between play and the development of language skills. Psychologist Edward Fisher was celebrated for finding that “socio-dramatic play"— which is what happens when kids play make believe together— results in improved performances in both cognitive-linguistic and social affective domains. Play can also improve organisational abilities in children: a 2014 study found that children between the ages of six and seven who engaged in role play, reading, board games and ‘tag’ demonstrated greater ability to organise their time, initiate tasks, and achieve goals without external direction.
Art-based play can also work wonders for a child’s development, as proven by the European teaching philosophy Reggio Emilia, which has creative projects at its core with a focus on learning through experience.
“They enjoy the sensory nature first and as their physical control over the materials improves they feel an enormous sense of satisfaction and empowerment. As they develop, their compositions begin to include symbols of real events, people and feelings - an essential preparation for mastering writing,” one Reggio expert said.
Play has also been said to promote creative problem solving, improve math skills (particularly through the use of play aid such as Lego), and enable children to pay greater attention to academic tasks when they are given frequent, brief opportunities for free play. By way of example, Chinese and Japanese students, who are among the higher achievers in the world, attend schools that provide short breaks every 50 minutes.
WHY SOME FAMILIES OR CULTURES FROWN UPON PLAY
Unfortunately, play in many cultures has negative connotations associated with it, particularly when directly compared to study and skilling up. In traditional societies in Asia, for example, ethnic cultural influences tend to view play and academics are separate and incompatible. But in Australia, Europe and America, the myriad benefits of play have well and truly been recognised, meaning there is little distinction between the two.
These differing belief systems are congruent with culture specific socialisation practises, and even the way in which different children interpret play is culturally influenced. Children's play always reflects their own social values and ethnic practices.
As an example, researchers have found that Korean American preschool children are less likely to engage in pretend play than Anglo-American children, and when they do Korean children tend to exhibit more every day and family role activities than those of Anglo-American children, who commonly following fantasy themes (e.g. role plays that relate to fairy tale characters that do not exist).
In international schools or international communities in particular, the gap between cultural approaches to the ‘study verses play’ conundrum is often magnified. It’s important for parents to respect and understand the cultural influences at play before judging another on their parenting approach, or seeking to drive change within a child’s social group.
The results are in. It’s okay to let kids have fun! Keep in mind that a small directional nudge here and there is harmless (for example, “shall we play dress ups today?”), but it’s important to allow your child the chance to have uninhibited, unguided free play as often as possible. By doing so throughout their early years, they will no doubt grow as independent, creative, proactive, life-loving children. And that is the end game, isn’t it?