The Association for Play Therapy is sponsoring National Play Therapy Week. (In all transparency, I am on its Board of Directors.) I will be doing my part to spread the news of the benefits of play and play therapy by having special blogposts throughout the week.
To the untrained eye, play seems to be something that babies and young children do, a way to pass the time. It doesn't seem to accomplish anything. It doesn't seem serious so others don't take it seriously. But those who believe this are SO WRONG!
Play has so many physical, mental, emotional, relational, and spiritual benefits. While we tend to think of play as just the purview of children, it also has benefits for adults. Here are a few of them.
- Play comes naturally to babies and young children. Biologically and evolutionarily speaking, Mother Nature must have had a reason for this. Play is the prominent way babies and young children grow, learn, and develop. Play facilitates a child's physical, motor, cognitive, language, emotional, and social development. There is far too much empirical and anecdotal evidence for me to share here. As a mother, former early childhood educator, play therapist, and researcher, I know this to be true.
- Play allows us to practice and try out life roles and learn new skills. So many examples of this. Give toddlers child-sized spoons and some food and they will learn to feed themselves through playing with the spoon and food after having spent hours observing other family members feed themselves. You don't have to actually directly teach them to feed themselves. And all the laughs, fun, cute faces, and clean-up as the toddler makes messes, since we don't learn a new skill the first time. It takes practice. Some skills require reinforcement of the skills we already have as in when we "play sports" and have "practice." Then there's all those roles children frequently engage in while playing, e.g., doctor, teacher, mommy, firefighter, police officer, waitress, etc. Ever wonder why children do those things? It's a way for them to try on these roles they adults "playing" and see what it's like. Career development is already taking place. (I played a lot of school as a child.)
- Play is a connector. We build relationships through play. Besides holding and feeding our babies, we play with them. Simples games like peek-a-boo or making silly faces in attempt to get a toddler to laugh. Dads wrestling not the floor with their young children. I remember loving to play airplane with my parents when I was a child and I loved doing it as a parent to my own children. (I explain airplane here because I don't want to assume anything. Parent lies on the floor with feet up in the air. Child faces the parent and has parent's feet on his or her tummy. While parent and child hold hands, parent pushes the child in the air. Once both have their balance they let their hands go and the child holds out his or her arms like airplane wings.) When a couple is dating they often focus on play, e.g., bowling, miniature golf, hiking, bike riding, etc. The result in all these cases is a release of neurochemicals in our brains that tie us together.
- Play releases excess energy and tension which promotes focus. Children focus on the task at hand much better when they've had the opportunity to go outside and play. There is also research to support this. Unfortunately too many schools, aren't including enough recess for children. I saw this benefit firsthand when I worked in child care settings. If there were days where the children were unable to play outside because of the weather and we didn't have access to a gym, it would feel like the children were climbing the walls. There was much more misbehavior seen in the children. I also think of times as an undergraduate and graduate student when the stress of studying and work would build up. If I took the time to go play, in my case dancing, I felt so much better and could focus more on my studies. Otherwise I'd end up staring at a blank computer document or into space with a textbook in my lap.
- When play has few restrictions or limits on it, it fosters creativity, imagination, and problem-solving. This is one of my favorite benefits of play. If I provide simple materials for children and let them go at it, they will use their natural impulses to create something uniquely their own. If I direct a child or adult in how they should play, where's the creativity in that? I could do an entire blogpost on how many adults have forgotten how to be creative. You often hear adults say, "I'm not creative." This is partly due to creativity being associated with artistic talent, but it's so much more than that. Unfortunately, in our educational system and society, unintentionally we can be hindering others' creative impulses when we tell others exactly how to do something, we expect one right answer, or we are satisfied with the status quo.
Start paying more attention to yourself and the children around you as they are engaged in play. What do you see them doing? What are they/you getting out of it?
In the comments below, please share what or how you liked to play as a child.