Why Play Matters

Thinking back to childhood what was it that excited you? What sort of activities did you do over and over again? Did you create something new every day?

As adults it is easy to forget the excitement that comes from pretending to be someone else for a time and go on adventures that were only limited by your imagination. It is a huge challenge to recreate that feeling today, however, we shouldn’t give up for ourselves or for our children.

As adults we use words and language to communicate our experiences and emotions. Children, on the other hand, use play to express their thoughts and feelings. They act out situations as a way to show stress and worry, ask questions, and importantly, change a narrative. In times of play children are writing the story and can change the outcome of a scary event or use their problem-solving abilities to cope.

But what is play and why does it matter?

Play is any activity that is pleasurable and “not work”. It is something a person wants to do, not what they have to do. Play is initiated by the individual and is self-directed within the imagination. During play, the process and means is more valuable then the end – it is more important to develop and perfect a story than it is to end that story. Rules are important to play, however, they are not dictated like laws or school behaviour, they stem from the minds of the players and evolve as the game changes.

Brain changes  

Peer-to-peer interactions in childhood aid in the development of the prefrontal cortex and shapes connections among the neurons involved in motor, emotional and cognitive processes. This is vital as the prefrontal cortex is responsible for impulse control and sustaining attention. This again reinforces the idea that play is beneficial for developing a wide range of skills. The type of play also impacts brain development. The most beneficial type of play for prefrontal cortex development is unstructured play where rules and consequences are negotiated and are unique to the game. Cognitive skills such as thinking, and memory are also strengthened by play as these neural pathways are activated.

Socialisation

Play assists in the development of interpersonal skills. Play allows children to practice skills that will be necessary for handling social situations as they grow into adulthood. This includes learning how to effectively communicate with others and how to share and take turns. In play, rules are generally followed. This means that deception is a rarity within the group. Individuals band together to play and in cases of deception, bonds grow stronger as the dishonest individual is excluded from the rest. This also assists in the development of morality.

Fitness

Play has many physical benefits. Research has consistently shown that outdoor, unstructured play is one of the best forms of exercise for children. This is imperative knowledge as childhood obesity is becoming a growing problem in the Australian population.   

Emotional Wellbeing

Play facilitates the development of empathy, mental flexibility and creativity. Play allows children to express their interests and process any negative emotions they are experiencing. When play is limited children experience an increase in anxiety and depression and feel a loss of control within their lives. Children feel that they are capable and have an increase in self-efficacy when they contribute to play and find success in games.

Types of play

  • Imaginary play
  • Sensory play
  • Arts and craft
  • Role play
  • Board and card games
  • Online games
  • Story telling

The best way to play

Child-centred play is most important for children’s learning and development. This involves the parent providing their full attention, while the child leads the play and makes their own choices. This independent process allows the child to express any emotions, thoughts, or worries that may be on their mind. Here, it is important for the parent to offer ideas, but then wait for the child to return to them with their plan. For instance, the parent can suggest making a robot. The child can then choose what it looks like, how big it is, what it is able to do and so on. For play to be beneficial it is also important to ask open-ended questions. An example of this is “I wonder what we could do with this?” or “I like what you’ve made, can you tell me about it?”. This provides the opportunity for the child offer their own ideas and focus on what they need in that moment.

While the world is dealing with the impacts of the current pandemic, it is possible to forget how important play is, in its simplicity. Children will not remember the specifics of coronavirus after it passes, however, they will remember how their home felt and how the people around them responded. Play will help children cope and learn resilience. In our stress, let’s not forget how significant an empty cardboard box, or unused piece of fabric can be in the imagination of a child. Encourage play while we keep our distance. While we cannot play in the park, we can use our backyards. While we cannot meet with friends, we can bond with family. While we cannot play face-to-face, we can interact online. Remember: play brings joy (even for adults).

Tegan BellTegan Bell, Psychologist, Solution Psychology

Tegan is a registered psychologist who completed her Masters of Psychology (Educational and Developmental) at the Australian Catholic University. She enjoys working with individuals across the lifespan and works collaboratively with families, school personnel and external agencies. Tegan is interested in a diverse range of issues, including emotional challenges, family and interpersonal issues, and school difficulties.

Tegan has worked with children, adolescents and their families, providing psychological support and assessments across multiple education settings, including government and independent schools. Tegan is enthusiastic about supporting individuals of all ages through tailored, personalised approaches. Tegan works predominately from a Cognitive Behaviour Therapy framework. She has a strong emphasis on evidence-based, person-centred approaches, while incorporating mindfulness and strength-based strategies to empower individuals.

Tegan has experience in providing psychological services, facilitating group programs and conducting comprehensive psycho-educational assessments including learning, cognitive, and social/emotional needs. This includes providing feedback to schools in supporting young people with learning, behaviour, and social/emotional challenges.