It’s time to play again!
A recent study found that the average American child spends 4-7 minutes a day in unstructured play, versus seven hours of screen time. As more and more schools cut recess time in favor of more instructional time, we moms need to recognize the importance of play in child development. Play teaches important social skills, problem solving skills, and expressive language skills that help children grow to be productive adults. Play is the language of the child – and it is becoming a forgotten language.
Children need to engage in self-controlled and self-directed play in order to explore the world around them and to develop a sense of self. Yes, organized sports and activities are vital to child development as well – but having unstructured play is just as important. As unstructured play has continued to decrease over the years, we have seen a rise in mental health concerns among children and adolescents and also (perhaps even more alarming), a decrease in empathy. Play is where creativity is born, and it’s time to reclaim it. For our children to master childhood and be ready to move on to adulthood, we need not only to encourage play, but to provide more opportunities specifically for unstructured, self-controlled, self-directed play. Here are a few of my tips for how we might do this.
Get Outside: Allowing children to safely explore the environment around them encourages adventure play and helps to spark creativity. The research also shows that children who play outside are more likely to stay on task longer. A bonus to playing outside? Exposure to sunlight improves mood and helps to boost immunity.
Get Messy: Children learn better by engaging all five senses. Free play should involve painting, sensory play, and yes (cue eye roll) even activities like making slime. This type of play engages the brain in a way that helps spark imagination, enhances cognitive abilities, and increases dexterity.
Get Creative: Provide toys that can be used in a variety of ways, which also helps kids’ creativity. What may be a discarded Amazon box to you may be a spaceship or a brand new high rise for a doll! (Side note: if you shop Amazon like my family, you may have an entire village by the end of the week.) Unstructured play is creative by its very nature – we just need to make sure we are providing the materials needed.
Get Moving: The best kind of play is physical. Not only does physical play get their body moving, but it also helps improve motor skills and confidence as they start to master difficult things on their own terms and in their own ways.
Get On Their Level: A family that plays together bonds together. Parents that engage in play with their children foster better communication, create stronger bonds, and foster empathy in their children. Allowing your child to take the lead and invite you into their world (and your openness to engage on their terms) helps to build their self-esteem and gives you a backstage pass to what is going on in their experience that you may have otherwise missed.
So today I proclaim, loud enough for even the people in the back: IT’S TIME TO PLAY!!