“Mama, check this out! I made an ark like Noah!” I entered the living room the other day to find that my four-year-old had stripped the cushions off the couch and created a large ‘boat’ for her stuffed animals--two by two--to escape a flood. This seemingly silly, perhaps slightly irritating, activity is in fact the primary way through which children begin to learn about and understand the world. My daughter was learning about physical balance, sorting, engineering, weather, and scripture through play; she was doing so without direct intervention or guidance from any adult.
As Maria Montessori observed, “play is the child’s work.” Play is necessary for children’s effective learning, developing physical strength, understanding language, developing problem-solving skills, connecting with caregivers and peers, processing and expressing emotions, and beginning to know their creator God, who is himself playful.
The word play has many meanings. Children ‘play’ video games, they ‘play’ the flute. The kind of play we will discuss here is activity in which children engage that is self-directed, intrinsically motivated, and imaginative (Cambridge Handbook of Play, 2019). Play, in its most beneficial forms, is chosen by, directed by, and created by the child. Play is a process that changes with the child through developmental stages, from the peek-a-boo of babyhood to the complex playground games of older children and beyond. All the while, play engages children in exploration of the world around them.
Play provides opportunities for skills development. A child learns about compromise and cooperation when he attempts to build a block tower with his peers. A child learns to clearly communicate and effectively lead and follow when she engages others in playground games. Children learn about the complex beauty of God’s created world when digging in the mud or observing seashells. All of this is play. All of this is learning. These play experiences, and countless others, occur naturally when children have access to unstructured time.
Play helps children manage stress. At a time where children experience increasing academic and social pressures, play is an essential tool for coping with difficult emotional experiences. Research indicates that play is related to reduced cortisol--the stress hormone--levels in children (Pediatrics, 2014). Play also facilitates healthy attachment between children and their parents. Parents experience increased bonding with their children through engaged interactions, specifically play. The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly recommends play for these reasons, stating that the “mutual joy and shared communication and attunement…that parents and children can experience during play regulate the body’s stress response (Pediatrics, 2008).
Many parents, especially busy parents of young children, struggle to find the energy or motivation to engage in play with their children. It certainly can be difficult to come home from work and jump right into an imaginary submarine or blow bubbles with your child when there is dinner to make and laundry to do. Here’s the good news: while playing with your child can be challenging, a little goes a long way.