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The Importance of Play: Part One

Let me ask you a few questions … and answer honestly.  When was the last time you jumped in a puddle?  Or in a pile of leaves?  When can you last remember building a fort, playing pirate, or sledding down a hill?  Can’t remember?  Or did the general answer of “when I was a kid” come to mind?

Let’s face it.  As adults, our lives are filled with tasks, responsibilities, stress, and duties necessary for survival.  We rarely have time for that second cup of coffee in the morning let alone an hour of free, unrestrained, undefined play.

Which is exactly why having a little fun is so important.  In fact, it’s so vital to our lives, not only as children but as adults, that I’m going to devote several posts to this very subject.  Why?  Because somewhere along the line, we as a society decided that play was bad and fun was the enemy.  We built our lives around the ideas of productivity, success, and work… and for some reason we see fun as an obstacle to those things rather than a necessary part of them.

Worse still, we’re cutting it out of our children’s lives, which could prove to have disastrous results

for their future as well as the future of our society as a whole.

The Science of Play

Though it may sound counter-intuitive, play is both serious and complex.  It predates culture and can be found throughout the animal kingdom.  Dogs play, cats play, even birds play.  Think of a wolf pack.  Their lives aren’t exactly easy.  They struggle, traveling hundreds of miles in a matter of days, just to find food.  And as soon as they’ve found some, they go right back to hunting.

dogs playing

And yet, even wolves play.  Why?  Why would a species with such a hard life devote time and energy to play?

The answer is remarkably complex, but the basic idea is that play provides a necessary environment in which to learn social, cognitive, and motor skills.  Wolf pups playing with one another and adults will learn skills needed on the hunt while also establishing and strengthening social bonds within the pack.

For humans, the benefits of play are even more complex.

Play isn’t just a great way to exercise children’s bodies, it’s also a vital form of exercise for their mind.  That’s right, free play – play that is self-generated and unstructured – works a child’s mind in the same way that running works their muscles.  It develops far more than just their social, cognitive, and motor skills.  Play increases their mind’s flexibility, allowing them to assess and handle new situations and unexpected events with greater ease.  It increases creativity and curiosity by building an environment where new ideas are constantly being generated, manipulated, and developed.  Play also expands emotional understanding by helping to develop empathy and self-awareness.

And for those who still believe play is the enemy, allowing a child to engage in free play increases their personal resiliency, their happiness and satisfaction, and their success.

Knowing this, one would think that we would be encouraging our children to play as often as possible.  After all, most of us want our kids to become happy, satisfied, and success adults, right?  And yet we see a distinct and worrying trend in our society.

Our children are spending less time playing every year.

child learning to write

Have you walked into a kindergarten class recently?  When I was in kindergarten (yeah, it’s one of those stories), the room was filled with various play areas.  There was a section filled with blocks, another with dress-up clothing, a toy kitchen set, a book corner, and many toy chests filled with random toys.  We had several short breaks throughout the day when we were encouraged to play.  Not only did this allow us to get rid of some excess energy, it allowed us time to develop social skills as many of us had limited experiences with large groups of people before starting school.  We learned how to play together, how rules and boundaries were created and enforced, and how to empathize when disagreements over favored toys took place.

Now many kindergarten classes are seriously lacking toys with the majority of their day devoted to structured learning activities.  Our school systems seem to think that forcing more responsibility on children at a younger age will result in higher test scores in later years, putting us back at the top in education on a world scale.

And yet we aren’t seeing those results come to fruition.  Instead, our high schools are plagued by increased numbers of depressed students, anxiety disorders, and aggression.  Though there are other factors at work here, an increase in the amount of responsibility and stress and the reduction in play certainly contributes.  Why are our seven and eight year olds struggling under the pressures of standardized testing and homework?  Why are they being compared to others and being labeled and categorized when they are still developing at their own pace?

Why can’t we let our kids be kids?

Here at Fun Unlimited, fun is our business.  We believe that play isn’t a waste of time, but is instead a necessary part of life.  Not only does it boost our physical health, but it does wonders for our mental and emotional health as well.  To that end, we want to encourage everyone to get out and play every day.

Come back and visit soon to read Part Two of our discussion on play where we tackle the stigma of adults playing,

its importance, and how it can change our lives for the better.