Last week, in Part II of my series on the importance of play, I focused on the cognitive development free play provides. I will tell you frankly that I started with the aid to cognitive development because I know that parents are often more concerned with their children’s academic standing than with their social or emotional development—despite the fact that research show that “our success at work or in life depends on Emotional Intelligence 80% and only 20% of intellect.” When kids had lots of time to play with each other, parents and teachers didn’t have to devise lessons to support kids’ emotional development. They got emotional training through their every day interactions. Let’s take a look at how play does that.
The Benefits of Play to Children’s Emotional Development
When kids take part in imaginative play, they are practicing for real life. Playing out scenes, they get a safe way to process things they’ve experienced. For example, perhaps they are feeling powerless against their parents’ rules. During play, they might allow their dolls to eat as much ice cream as they want while sitting in front of the television set. Conversely, they might seize power by mimicking the adult and angrily force their doll to eat his vegetables or punish him by giving him a time out for not finishing his dinner.
Play can provide a covert way for children to express how they are feeling about something. After my divorce my daughter played a game for months where things would break and she would take them to the “Fix It Shop” but even at the Fix It Shop, they couldn’t be fixed. And she would then get mad at the STUPID Fix It Shop. Getting directly mad at her dad and me about the divorce would have been too scary (children understand that they are dependent on their parents to take care of them—and what if the consequence of getting mad at your parent was that your parent divorced you?). In her game, however, she could make the fact that some things can’t be fixed not just true for her family but for other situations, too. Playing the game allowed her to be angry without risking her parents’ abandoning her.
Play Allows Virtual Do Over's
Imaginative play also gives kids a chance for a virtual do over. By repeating similar scenes, kids get to practice who they want to be in that scene (the hero, the sidekick, the kid who knows to get help from parents rather than letting things get out of control, the kid who this time doesn’t burst into tears). For example, a child who has witnessed a car hitting a bicycle might recreate that scene over and over until it loses its power. In play, a child can change the outcome. She can explore what it feels like to have the bicyclist not get hurt at all or even more powerfully to play through the scene where the bicyclist gets really injured—even lethally so. Parents might be uncomfortable at the idea of their child killing off the bicyclist, but just as we go to psychological thrillers or horror films, it is cathartic for kids to imagine the worse and through play work that fear through their systems.
Play Gives Children a Place to Be Powerful
Playing out impossible or unlikely situations is another way for kids to feel in control. Through play, you can have the magic of a fairy godmother or Harry Potter and the powers of a super hero. We all want to feel in control in the world, and in play kids can borrow qualities that help them feel them to feel more dominant. Wearing his Superman’s cape your four year old has the courage to accept the new babysitter coming tonight. Kids who are living in two houses who create a game with a teleporter now live in a world where they are able to live in their two houses at once as easily as if they were stepping into the other room. Through their imagination feelings of uncertainty, hurt or resentment that might become overwhelming, become manageable.
Play Builds Emotional Intelligence Which Teaches Kids to Relate to Others
Emotional intelligence starts with awareness of one’s own and others’ feelings. Through imaginative play, children step into other people’s shoes. Sometimes they will be the captive tied up waiting to be rescued and sometimes they will be the buccaneer. In that moment of huddling down behind a chair, their hands tied up with toilet paper, the child asks himself what would it really be like if someone tied me up and threatened me. For that moment, he feels the fear and uncertainty. The tension fills his body, but he manages it and coaches himself to be brave. The next time he is playing on the yard and sees someone being pushed in the corner or restrained by another kid, he will remember that feeling. Knowing how it feels, he is much more likely to take action to now be the rescuer—the playground upstander.
Parents as Play Partners
As a classroom teacher, I cannot empathize enough the importance of emotional development—the ability to regulate one’s emotions and to identify emotions in others—to a child’s readiness to learn. As a parent, you can provide support for this learning by entering into your child’s imaginative play. When you are the captive and your child is the evil pirate keeping you captive and torturing you, the child gets to process some of his anger towards you (for when you made him sit at the table or submit to being strapped into his car seat). Then when he gets to be the hero who rescues you, he becomes powerful in a generous, admirable sort of way. Through play he has both released negative emotion and practiced being his most noble self.
Consider scheduling some time to play imaginatively with your kids. Too often these days it doesn’t happen. Dinner needs to get cooked and the laundry needs to get done, so it is easier to hand our kids the iPad so they are occupied while we get on with it. I would rather see you train the kids to help in the kitchen and folding the laundry, freeing up some time for child directed, fully engaged play.
Come back next week for Part IV of the Benefits of Play series to find out what important social skills children develop as they are out on the yard at recess or negotiating the ins and outs of a play date.
P.S. Did you miss out on ways to be more playful with your kids?
Joyful Parenting Coaching