How many times have you been drawn in to watching children play? Wondering what is happening in their mind, what they are thinking, why they did it that way instead of another, the way they learn. If you haven’t I encourage you to watch, get curious and get involved in mind of a child at play.
Play is one of the most essential pieces for development in children for social, mental, emotional, physical, and cognitive growth. Play is such a natural part of growing for children, even when they are not introduced to “play” they are naturally drawn toward it. It is easy to see how play can foster development, but it can also be difficult to see why play is SO important. I want to help walk you through the different areas of developmental growth that makes play so essential for children, teens and adults.
Types of Play
There are various types of play that children can engage in:
- Social (Structured and Unstructured)
There are many other categories, but I want to focus primarily on these three as we walk through the benefits of play.
The Play of Imagination—Mental, Emotional, Cognitive Benefits
The first type of play I want to discussed is imagination. Children naturally go to imagination, and imaginative play can be very healthy for children because it helps them learn to be creative. It helps them draw deeper into a world of unknown and create a sense of being within and outside themselves. Imagination fosters creativity and creativity is something that is so important to us as we grow older. Imagination is not only for children, it is important to be fostered as teens and adults as well.
When children learn creativity, it can help foster problem solving, empathy, and learning. Imagination is something people don’t typically see as “useful”, but the simple benefits of using one’s imagination fosters many opportunities later in life. Imagination can help us think through things from beginning to end and see how different situations and different experiences can hold different consequences (positive and negative). Different emotional components are met when exploring in imaginative play. Children start to learn and recognize different emotions as well as begin to understand and create different interactions that evoke emotion, whether it be an imaginary friend or fighting a battle in space. Through imagination, children begin to learn the capacity for emotions in their own life.
Some of the drawbacks of imaginative play is if it is the primary source of play the social aspect can be missed out on. There is a component of social learning and development that can be hindered if imaginative play is the only play a child encounters. This can take away from peer connection, building empathy, learning social norms, creating a sense of self, understanding consequences in social interactions, and learning to build relationships.
The Play with Technology—Mental, Cognitive Benefits
Play with technology is becoming increasingly more and more popular. It is easy to hand a child an I-Pad and put on an educational game and allow the kid to be entertained through the use of technology. Technology has begun to offer us so much growth and so much opportunity, it is a wonderful thing, but it can also be one of the most harmful to children as well.
Technology can benefit children in multiple ways—it is the generation children are walking into, so it will be important for them to learn to navigate it well. There are different forms of technology—video games, I-Pad/tablet games, television, computers, among other sources of technology. Children can learn problem solving skills, complex thinking, basic learning (math-numbers, words-letters, colors, etc.), and consequences through different technology avenues. Those skills are essential to teenage and adult years as we learn to navigate through relationships, academics, school pressures, and identity.
There are some drawbacks to playing games through technology—losing out on social interactions, lack of empathy, not learning social norms, not fostering connection with people/peers, and lack of physical movement which is key to mental and emotional growth. Each of these drawbacks can have a large impact on the way children handle relationships, academics, emotions, school pressures, and identity as they grow into teenage years. Too much technology can take something helpful and cause harm to the people who use it too often.
Technology is typically loved by children, but is the one area of play that needs to be the most monitored due to the drawbacks in development. Science has shows that our brain is meant for connection with other people, and technology threatens that critical piece of connection that our brain needs to feel complete. Without connection people often fall into anxiety, depression, and isolation. Emotionally people of all ages have this desire to connect but struggle knowing how because it was not fostered fully as a child. Technology can offe r some important cognitive and mental benefits, and now more than ever, it is important to monitor amount of time spent face-to-screen versus amount of time spent face-to-face with either an adult or a peer.
The Play of Social Development—Mental, Emotional, Cognitive, Physical, Social Benefits
As you can see, the social piece of play is the most beneficial as it touches on all different areas of essential development. When children learn to play with others they can benefit from learning social norms, learning to have empathy for others, learning their emotional capacity, getting active physically, learning to play appropriately, learning what is right and wrong, learning how to problem solve, learning how to teach and learn from others, learning their boundaries, learning to communicate, learning to solve conflicts, to list just a few. These are all so essential to recognizing and setting up skills for future situations as they mature and grow older.
There are tons of benefits to social play, but some drawbacks can be significant as well. Bullying, constant rejection, and unsafe risks are being taken can cause some very alarming and harmful situations in social development. As parents, it is always important to have an open line of communication with your children at all times, and to constantly teach children through social opportunities how to handle emotions, communication, and appropriate consequences for their/other’s actions.
Is it important to monitor the play of your children with others and give some guidance at times, but it is also very important to allow your children to learn to work through it to help them get familiar with emotions and make choices for themselves. It helps build emotional tolerance as well as resilience in the face of adversity. Parents want to rescue and protect their children from hurt, discomfort, and disappointment—which is totally understandable and commendable, but these are all things that we are bound to face at some point in our life. If we learn to nurture a child who has the ability through social play to learn to face some emotionally hard times parents set their children up for success in the future. Sometimes parents have to step in and help and protect their children. The scary truth is parents will not always be there, once a child hits teenage years they want to start exploring their ability to handle things on their own. If parents give their children the opportunity to learn these things at a young age with the support and love of a parent, they will have the chance to be more successful in their teenage and adult relationships.