Did you know that play is considered so important to the social, emotional, physical and mental development of children that the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights recognizes play as a human right for every child. Wow!
Have you ever seen news or other television footage of children in war torn or very destitute areas playing? Usually it some form of soccer or kick the can or something with sticks or broken pieces from bombed out buildings. It’s always amazing—the NEED to play despite everything going horribly wrong around them. What is that about?
It turns out that play is vital to development of the brain and I would also say to the mind, body and spirit. It helps everyone manage stress and especially for children, it helps them understand the world around them, conquer fears, develop new skills such as self advocacy, conflict resolution, sharing and even compassion. Research is also finding that play helps children develop the part of their brain which is responsible for helping children manage their emotions, control their behavior, resist impulses, and exert self-control and discipline. Yes, even adults can benefit in the same ways from their own forms of play.
This ability in children and adults to ‘self-regulate’ or control emotions, thoughts and behaviors are critical life skills. Key to developing these abilities in children in adults is found in the type of play children and adults do. The research is clear that activities that our kids engage in most of the time–watching television, playing video games and doing lessons–do not promote self-regulation. Even some activities that parents believe will provide enrichment for their children like sports and dance, etc. are regulated by adults and/or very structured and leave less time for children to practice their own self regulation through unstructured play. It is vital to our children’s enrichment that they have time with nothing to ‘do’ except undirected, imaginative play.
The type of play that fosters the skills most needed in today’s world is the imaginative, undirected play that does not even involve providing toys. There has been a precipitous drop in imaginative play SINCE the introduction of all the toys that typically have one or a few specific scenarios for which they are intended. For example, can anyone find legos that aren’t specifically set up to be built into one machine or creature?
You can save yourself a lot of grief as a parent and also a lot of money, as well as helping your child’s development by doing what kids all used to do. Send them outside to make up a game, investigate the natural world and make up another game with what they find. Tell them to talk about what they are going to do, negotiate with others, take turns, run, fall down and laugh.
These kinds of activities are important not only for children. Adults that play, even silly games that cause them to laugh, release a feel good chemical called dopamine which is integral to our health and well being. Consider what makes you really laugh until it hurts. When was the last time you did so? Do you remember how you felt for quite a while afterwards? Can you remember something right now that makes you laugh just thinking about it? How does that affect your mood and body? What did you most like to play as a kid? What do you think it did for you then and even now?
Play is just important to adult happiness and adjustment as it is to children’s lives. What beliefs might you have about adult ‘play’ that keeps you from having more fun in your life? What do you think is appropriate ‘play’ for adults, if anything, in the way I have described? I will discuss this more in subsequent columns but for now, go play with your kids or somebody’s kids (with permission of course).
Simon Says is a great game for working on self control. Playing with your kids will help you as well as them. Joint story reading helps foster sharing and stories often model characters practicing self regulation and learning. Even having your children help you cook and follow a recipe helps children learn to plan and problem solve—and it’s a great way to have fun in your limited time with them.
I will write more on this topic and other social and emotional health topics in subsequent blogs. Until them, remember, families that play together, stay together!
Jeanne Teleia is a licensed psychotherapist, play therapist, certified substance abuse counselor and Life and Wellness Coach in private practice here in Honoka’a. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 808-224-5008 or http://www.HamakuaCounseling.com.