The Power of Play
By Vanessa Durrant, MSW, LCSW-C, RMT
As parents, sometimes we are perplexed by our children's play. What does it mean? Are they playing too much, not enough, too rough? These are important questions as they help us to elevate the importance of childhood. Much research has validated the significance of play and this article will help you understand your role in understanding and supporting different kinds of play.
Children need play in their lives in order to healthfully grow, express, and understand their world. The brain will not healthfully develop without it. It begins in infancy when a baby moves its body. These random movements that have no seeming purpose are actually the building blocks known as unoccupied play. As a child continues to grow, play actually changes the connections of the neurons in the front of their brain known as the prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain that is not finished developing until the mid-twenties. This part of the brain allows for executive functioning to develop. Executive functioning helps with planning, completing tasks, solving problems and even regulating emotions. In essence, play helps prepare the child for school, friendships, and careers–for life. Social play, however, builds over time via different stages. After unoccupied play, comes solitary, onlooker, cooperative, associative, and then finally, parallel play. Because of this natural progression, scientists are also purporting that the larger purpose is to build pro-social brains that know how to interact with others in positive ways. That is powerful!
For these reasons, play has deeply therapeutic effects on children, too. Since children often lack the complete brain development that allows for sophisticated language and emotional expression, play is able to symbolize language. Sometimes, it is easy to discount play as a given, something that is merely a part of childhood, without realizing that play is the universal language of childhood. And thus, our children are able to communicate with us in this way. As parents, it's helpful to understand play in order to best comprehend and support our children. First let's learn the six categories of play:
1. Constructive – building and creating, supports visual-spatial, fine motor, and math skills
2. Physical – movement based, supports muscle development, healthy exercise, and coordination
3. Expressive – expressing feelings through art, music, and writing, it’s vital for creativity
4. Competitive – learning about fairness, rules, and taking turns
5. Fantasy – imagining and thinking beyond their world, aids creative problem solving
6. Digital – a pseudo-type of solitary play, without social interaction, impacts social skills like eye contact and attention
So in reading about those six categories of play, some may jump out as, "Ah, yes, my child does that all the time," while also noticing that your child may not engage in other certain kinds of play. This is especially true if your child has a learning difference or is on the spectrum. If this is the case with your family, with creativity, time and effort, you can actually slowly support your child into more types of play, and thus positively impact their social skills development. Additionally, within each of those categories is a large spectrum of what that play may look like and what a child is really expressing via that play. This is why it's vital that parents become attuned to their child when they are playing because by doing so, you can help your child feel understood and supported. As a parent, this is a skill that takes time and effort to hone, so be patient with yourself.
Often times, parents may find it difficult to play with their children. It can be as simple as feeling confused because your child is asking you to play with them, yet, the minute you begin to play, they are so involved in what they are doing, it's as if you are not there, or in other instances, because you feel frustrated by the play they are exhibiting, are they being too physical or aggressive? Just crashing all the toys together? Or other times, you just frankly don't want to play what they want to play. It's so important in these moments to remember that all of this play is telling you something, about them, and even yourself.
A child who asks to play with you, then gets so involved in their own play, may just be communicating that they want to feel your presence; they want you there, to delight in them, to witness their world. They have not necessarily mastered other stages of play like cooperative, associative or parallel play. And that is okay. Your mere presence is allowing for that to slowly develop. Additionally, a child who is too physical or aggressive may need an outlet to safely express pent up emotions and thoughts or just simply release energy. You can be that safe person by playfully playing back, letting them take the lead and once that child feels understood, you will see that play naturally de-escalates into calmer play. If you don't notice a de-escalation after you have thoroughly played, you can take the lead and say, "Ah, I'm having so much fun letting all my energy out with you that now my b
ody is feeling tired. Let’s take a break or go color together. Which would you prefer?" It's important to verbalize what is happening because you are also helping your child connect the play experience with his feelings and body. One of the most important things to remember when you are playing with your child is to allow them to take and keep the lead. Do not judge or interfere with what they are bringing to the table. This literally takes their power and voice away. For example, if you are playing with dinosaurs on the floor, do not attack their dinosaur. This conveys your dominance to the child. Instead, let them take the lead. If they attack your dinosaur, let it happen. If you feel confused by what to do next, ask them! You will notice that your child will enjoy telling you what to do with your dinosaur. This gives them a voice and a safe outlet to express themselves via play. As your child moves through the different stages of social play development, it's so fun to see how dinosaur play evolves and shifts as their emotional literacy shifts as well.
Lastly, sometimes we just don't feel like playing with our kids. This is when it's so important to remember that childhood is fleeting. By working to connect with your child now, you are investing in your future relationship and their brain development. So, my best advice is to give yourself a breather, and then go enjoy some childhood magic with your kid! Science is showing so many benefits to free play, from higher academic performance, to an increase in empathy and happiness. So, get on the floor, and play!
**This article was featured in the Feb./March 2017 issue of Frederick's Child Magazine
and can be found here**
Vanessa Durrant is a licensed psychotherapist and owner of Kindred Tree Healing Center where she helps children, parents, and adults heal and grow into the best version of themselves.