The importance of play

“Play is our brain’s favourite way of learning” - Diane Ackerman 

From ancient times play was the part of every childhood - unregulated and unscripted it was passed from generation to generation. Play is so important to optimal child development that it has been recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right of every child. Unfortunately these days when our children face too many structured activities, screen time, academic pressure, they spend much less time outdoors or engaging in unstructured play. 

Psychologist and researcher Joe L. Frost in in his book “A History of Children’s Play and Play Environments” mentions  - “Now, for the first time in history, the children of entire industrialized nations, especially American children, are losing their natural outdoor grounds for play and forgetting how to engage in free, spontaneous … play. The consequences are profound.” 

So why play is so important?

Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength.1 Affective relationships with loving and consistent caregivers as they relate to children through play is critically important for children’s development. When parents observe their children in play or join with them in child-driven play, they are given a unique opportunity to see the world from their child’s vantage point as the child navigates a world perfectly created just to fit his or her needs.2 Playing together shows children that parents are fully paying attention to them. During play parents can glimpse into their children’s world from another perspective and understand it better. It is especially important for less verbal children. 

Playing and learning goes hand in hand - it might seem that play is a waste of time but in reality children learn a whole lot while playing - they experiment, try new ideas, learn to make choices and find out how their choices relate to consequences. Play provides rich learning opportunities and leads to children’s success and self-esteem.

Play is natural stress reliever which is extremely important in our stressful world. Psychologists in Brazil conducted a research where they measured cortisol, stress hormone levels in two different groups of children.3 The group, which was encouraged to play, had significantly lower cortisol levels. 

Nowadays children play less  

Despite the numerous benefits derived from play for both children and parents, time for free and unstructured play has been markedly reduced for most children. With increasing pressure for parents to come back to work early, children start attending day care really early.  The trend of reduced time for play has even affected day cares, where children have free play reduced in their schedules to make room for more academics. Nowadays some children are given less time for free exploratory play as they are hurried to adapt into adult roles and prepare for their future at earlier ages as well.4 Parents are receiving carefully marketed messages that good parents expose their children to every opportunity to improve their skills and ensure their children participate in a wide variety of activities.

Children are exposed to videos and computer programs from an early age as well as specialized books and toys designed to ensure that they are well-rounded and adequately stimulated for excellent development. Specialized gyms and enrichment programs designed for children exist in many communities, and there is absence of after-school enrichment activities. Another reason for less time dedicated to free play is screen time - unfortunately it is found that passive entertainment like watching tv or playing computer games doesn’t have the same benefits as unstructured play. 

Play is not only for children

When we think about play it naturally associates with children running around chasing each other. In reality play is much more than that and shouldn’t be restricted to a certain age group. Somewhere between childhood and adulthood we just stopped playing. In fact active playing has just the same benefits for adults as it does for children - helps relieve stress, improve brain function, boost creativity, improve your relationships if playing in the group. 

In his book Play, author and psychiatrist Stuart Brown, MD, compares play to oxygen. He writes, “…it’s all around us, yet goes mostly unnoticed or unappreciated until it is missing.”  For instance, Brown found that lack of play was just as important as other factors in predicting criminal behavior among murderers in Texas prisons. He also found that playing together helped couples rekindle their relationship and explore other forms of emotional intimacy.

Any time you think play is a waste, remember that it offers some serious benefits for both you and others. As Brown says in his book, “Play is the purest expression of love.” It is one of the most beautiful things we can do for ourselves and our children. 

  1. Burdette, H. L., & Whitaker, R. C. (2005). Resurrecting free play in young children: looking beyond fitness and fatness to attention, affiliation, and affect. Archives of pediatrics & adolescent medicine, 159(1), 46-50.
  2. Kenneth R. Ginsburg, ; and the Committee on Communications and ; and the Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health Pediatrics January 2007, 119 (1) 182-191; DOI:
  3. Potasz, C., Varela, M. J. V. D., Carvalho, L. C. D., Prado, L. F. D., & Prado, G. F. D. (2013). Effect of play activities on hospitalized children's stress: a randomized clinical trial. Scandinavian journal of occupational therapy, 20(1), 71-79.
  4. Rosenfeld, A., & Wise, N. (2010). The over-scheduled child: Avoiding the hyper-parenting trap. St. Martin's Griffin.
  5. Frost, J. (2010). A History of Children's Play and Play Environments. New York: Routledge,
  6. Brown, S. L., & Vaughan, C. C. (2009). Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul. New York: Avery.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published