Episode #4: Why Play is so Important for Children

Play is the primary architect of the brain. It is crucial to a child’s social, emotional, physical, and cognitive development.  Despite the vast amounts of research that have shown how crucial play is for children, the focus has been set on more “academic” pursuits.  Play must be protected and nurtured in our children on purpose.  In this episode we delve into what defines “play,” why it’s so important, and what we can do to protect it.


Definition of Play:

So to start, I want our listeners to think of what comes to mind when you hear the word “play?”  Some of us have incredible memories of a childhood spent riding bikes, building forts in the backyard, exploring in the woods, or playing with dolls.  For others it may come with the connotation of something frivolous, childish, and only for free time when children are not quote on quote “learning.”

So let’s get a definition of play going.  A great book that we would highly recommend is called “The Importance of being Little, What Preschoolers Really Need from Grownups” by Erika Christakis.  In this book, Erika defines play as “an intellectual and emotional frame of mind in which children come to an agreement with one another that things are not to be taken literally.” Pg. 146

According to early childhood experts, open-ended or “free” play has three characteristics—it is initiated by children, intrinsically motivating, and guided by child initiated rules.  Usually the rules are not known by adults until a child makes a mistake.  Children inherently know the rules.

Why is Play Important?

Ok so now that we’ve set a definition for what we are talking about when we say “play,” why is play so important for children?

  • Humans are born to play- across the animal kingdom there is a propensity toward play in the young.
  • The primary attachment figure is the child’s first playmate. In the very first interactions between parent and child- peek-a-boo and patty cake teaches the give and take and turn taking of play.
  • Play becomes especially prevalent during periods of rapid brain growth and development.
  • Play seems to be the primary architect of the brain. It is crucial to social, emotional, physical, and cognitive development.
  • Play is the soil in which creativity is born and nurtured in the life of a young child.
  • Through play, children find new uses for ordinary things, solve problems, and learn to wrestle new dilemmas.
  • Pg. 146 of The Importance of Being Little- “Play is the fundamental building block of human cognition, emotional health, and social behavior. Play improves memory and helps children learn to do mathematical problems in their heads, take turns, regulate their impulses, and speak with greater complexity.”
  • Imagination is where faith and hope are born.
  • Play is a language-rich experience that develops vocabulary and complex language skills.
  • Cause and effect thinking.
  • Symbolic representation
  • It’s a way that children process real life events.

What are the different types of play?

  1. Make-Believe or Dramatic Play- Play will extend way longer into childhood if we allow it to.
  2. Sensory Play
  3. Constructive Play
  4. Large Motor Play
  5. Fine Motor Play
  6. Artistic Play
  7. Language Play
  8. Rough and Tumble Play
  9. Appropriate Risk-Taking Play

Threats to Children’s Opportunities to Play

“Yet after decades of research, the benefits of play are so thoroughgoing, so dispositive, so well described that the only remaining question is how so many sensible adults sat by and allowed the building blocks of development to become so diminished.” Pg. 144- Erika Christakis

  • Focus on Academics- Despite ample research-based evidence that early academics have no long-term benefits and actually undermine the development of the very things school districts claim to value- creativity, problem solving, higher level thinking skills, and the ability to work cooperatively with others, these trends away from play in schools are taking place.
  • Adulturated children- Children being forced to take on adult responsibilities too young robs them of their childhood.
  • Technology is robbing children of play.
  • Highly structured environments where children are not given the opportunity to take initiative and have unhurried, free play time. Organized activities such as sports and lessons. Pg. 155 “Children develop athletic skills extraordinarily well through the everyday acts of running, jumping, digging, pulling, and pushing, not structured and adult-mediated activity.”- Erika Christakas
  • Fear has drastically limited children’s opportunities to play. Many parents are afraid to let their children play outside for fear of abductions, predators, bullies, or injuries.
  • Parents can hijack play. Follow the child’s lead.

Points to ponder:

The power of mixed-age children playing together. We need to get parents out of the way so that children can learn to play together. It’s important for older children to know how to play with younger and vice versa.

The power of being in nature– pg. 163 “Nature slows children down, literally and figuratively, and makes them feel mainly good things, and not bad.”- Erika Christakas

Pg. 164- “The experience of simply messing with nature, for its own sake, offers lessons that extend far beyond the life cycle of plants or birds.  It teaches children about boundaries, such as the difference between gently prodding a spider’s web with a stick because it’s an interesting sensation, and accidentally wrecking the spider’s house and livelihood, which turns out to be less nice.  It teaches children about causal relationships that have real meaning, too.”- Erika Christakas

The Child’s Ideal Habitat– Pg. 158 “The main ingredients of a strong play habitat are straightforward enough: time; open spaces, and cozy private ones; simple, inspiring, and transformable materials.”- Erika Christakas

Re-evaluate how your children spend their time?  Are they getting enough time to play?  If your child is in preschool are they in an environment that focuses on academics or play?

Play brings joy into the eyes and heart of a child!

Play is the primary context in which strong spirits are built.  Play and a playful attitude toward life across the lifespan will increase our capacity to truly experience in the depths of our soul the abundant life Jesus came to give.

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Resources mentioned: The Importance of Being Little by Erika Christakas

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Krista and Dr. Barbara

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