Last week I pointed out that kids are getting a lot less time for play and gave you some concrete ways to be more playful with your kids. I truly hope you have tried to incorporate more playfulness with your kids this week, but I know some of you want a deeper understanding of why it is such a loss to kids that they are getting less play time (and therefore why I not only urge you to bring playfulness into your home but also to carve out regular free play time in your kids’ weekly schedule).
What children get from play is powerful. When we enroll kids in too many organized activities, while they may learn skills in a specific area, their brains and bodies do not get the same kind of training because the adults are doing too much of the work for them.
The Benefits of Play to Children’s Cognitive/Neurological Development
When we move our bodies, we strengthen many neural connections that would otherwise disappear or weaken if not used. You know how we are urged to walk on the sand or other uneven terrain to develop ankle stability? Just as more muscles get worked trying to keep our balance where each step might feel different (compared to a treadmill where both our brain and our proprioceptors can take a break), when kids play freely with no particular structure, their brains get a workout as they adjust to new interactions and expectations.
Most kid play is naturally kinesthetic and involves whole body learning.
As children look far out across the yard and up close at a beetle in the grass and as they walk in and out of sunshine or feel the breeze ruffle their hair, they have to adjust to a lot variables. This random interaction is far more stimulating to both sides of the brain. Even the difference between a tree and the symmetry of a jungle gym is significant. Every tree is different. The textures, the shape, and how far you have to reach to the next branch require more attention. There are greater risks to be evaluated and in the form of sticks, twigs, prickly bits and tree sap. Calculating whether a branch will hold your weight provides more obstacles to overcome. Interacting with the natural world requires more balance and does more to develop kids’ gross motor skills.
Kids are natural scientists--given the chance to explore it on their own
Outside play, in particular, allows kids to do a lot of unconscious learning. They become natural scientists. As they play in the sand and dirt, they are learning the ways of the physical world. They intuitively explore questions like what composition of materials is most ideal for building a sand castle or a dam? What is the effect of water on various materials? How does the pressure differ if water is still vs. moving? Kids also learn much about the biological world. They see, feel and smell for themselves different kinds of vegetation, observe what thrives where there is water or what needs sunlight. They hear birdcalls, watch squirrels dig for nuts and learn how some creatures protect themselves when they poke a pill bug. In this way kids organically build up knowledge of the world that later makes book learning more interesting and significant.
Teaching Kids How to Play
Sadly, kids today spend so much time in structured activities—and inside on their electronics or strapped in their car seats as they are driven from place to place—that given the chance to play outside a lot of kids won’t know what to do with themselves. Whereas before kids who were given a chance to explore outside would occupy themselves for hours investigating the cracks of tree bark or looking under rocks, today’s children are likely to look up at their parent waiting to be told what to do. So at first you might have to reach back to your own childhood and jump in and play yourself. Get out of teaching mode (you can help your child make connections later when you get home and are snuggled reading a book). Go, hunt for cool things. Climb on something. Dig in the dirt.
Next week I’ll go into the value of play to children’s Emotional Development.