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The Many Benefits of Play
Our society has changed dramatically over the last fifty years, driven by advances in science and technology. Children are getting older younger and adults are staying younger longer. Children’s time is so tightly scheduled with structured activities that there is often no time left to just play! There are so many intrusions on a child’s play life. And yet, play is the way children learn about themselves and the world. It is through play that children learn to get along with others and to sort out conflicts. It is through play that children practice their language skills and develop their small (fine) and large (gross) motor skills. In addition, play encourages independence, self-esteem, creativity, and it gets their energy out! It gives children a much needed “down time” and functions as a stress reliever.

Play is exuberating and replenishing. Just think about how great you feel when you participate in something you really enjoy. That’s what play is all about. It’s about having fun. When you play, you have fun; when you have fun, you laugh. And recent research has found that laughter is a powerful, readily available and cost-free way to boost your mood and psychological well-being. The body releases endorphins and relieves stress as a natural physiological response to the physical act of laughing. That’s what makes play worthwhile. It elevates your state of mind. Play is the central factor that helps keep you at an even keel.

In addition to being a busy place for children, the world can be a disturbing place for them. Parents are concerned for the welfare and safety of their children. With 24-hour news available, children are often exposed to graphic violence or stories about child abductions, terrorism and war. Exposure to violence can alter the way children feel and behave. Therefore, it is important to create an environment and social climate that protects children and allows them to play without fear. Because play is the way children learn about the world and how to deal with conflicts, they should feel secure and comfortable in their surroundings, and have opportunities to freely play in order to calm their fears and anxieties. Children develop best in the context of a caring community where they are safe and valued, their physical needs are met, and they feel psychologically secure.

While solitary play is important, it is in group play that children learn how to get along with others and how to handle conflicts. Through group play they experience group processes of thought and the give-and-take of compromising. And in that sense, play is real-life learning. It helps them get ready for the everyday experience of interacting with others.

As important as finding time to play, children need to have enough time to play. It takes time to set up the play scenario, take roles, prepare the props, decide with others how to proceed, and so forth. Through play, children develop who they are. Their cognitive, language and physical skills develop through their play experiences as well as their imagination, concentration, self-confidence and sociability skills.

Taking a back-to-basics approach can be an easy and fun way for you to incorporate play into your child’s weekly schedule. Provide toys that reflect the love and nurturing of your family. Children’s imagination and social skills thrive when they play with toys that provide them the opportunity to express similar emotions to what they see at home, whether it's a farmer taking care of animals, or a play house with a pretend family. Also, the backyard or neighborhood playground is ideal for physical, active play. Running alongside a youngster who is just learning to ride a trike or skates is a great exercise for both of you.

Even though children’s schedules are busy with such activities, parents seem to feel that there is reasonable balance between structured activities and free time. While structured activities are part of growing up, it is important that young children have enough time to play, a safe place in which to play and friendly people to play with.

Today’s children play in much the same way as children of past decades. They enjoy playing pretend and dressing up as a princess or fire fighter. They enjoy having pretend conversations with their plush animals or on a toy telephone. They actively explore and investigate objects and toys to include in their play. By making sure there’s enough time for play in your child’s schedule, you’ll be ensuring that your child has time to be just that…a child.

Kathleen Alfano Ph.D., Former Director of Child Research at Fisher-Price®