Drop Everything and Play!

xmasplay

The stuffed animals went to school today. They went to stuffed animal school, anyway. The bad news is that my kids are home sick (tis the season). The good news is that they’re home sick¬†together so they can play in between coughs and sneezes.

They spent the better part of the morning setting up the school. They started with the physical space. After much thoughtful consideration, they settled on the hallway space between their bedrooms as the ideal place to build a school. They gathered school supplies, determined a schedule (including extra time for snacks, recess and lunch – you can draw your own conclusions on that one), made important decisions about who would teach what and raided the toy kitchen for food items to keep in the cafeteria. They even discussed the ideal teaching style and agreed on a strict NO HOMEWORK policy.

After what amounted to at least two hours of set up, they took a much needed break for lunch and rest. We read together, watched a show together and played a board game. Then they got back to business. By the afternoon, they began the playing part of the play.

This kind of “high level play”, play that contains sustained play themes and involves multiple roles and symbolic use of props, requires time. Today my kids had the time because they were home sick, but most days they find the time because we refuse to over schedule in this house. Childhood is short – we choose to play.

As both a psychotherapist and a mother, I have seen firsthand the clear benefits of making time for unstructured play.

The best news is that you don’t need a bunch of props and fancy toys to encourage this kind of play. In fact, most kids prefer to create their own props. In doing so, the prop becomes exactly what they want it to be and they can manipulate it to meet their needs. This is why cardboard boxes are such a huge hit for kids. They like to take control and create their own fun.

In fact, Eastern Connecticut State University’s Child Development Center just named the wooden cash register by Hape Toys the 2015 Toys that Inspire Mindful Play and Nurture Imagination selection. After studying preschoolers at play in their classrooms with a selection of toys for one year, they found that the kids were drawn to the wooden cash register over toys with more bells and whistles.

It makes sense. With the wooden cash register, kids can manipulate it as needed. It can be used for a store or to check out books for a library. The possibilities are endless when the children use the toy on their own terms.

What’s the big deal about high level play?

We know that play is the language of children and that kids learn, communicate and grow through play. But we have a tendency to push structured activities the moment kids enter elementary school.

When I speak to groups of parents I hear the same question over and over again: What is so different? Why are kids more stressed today than they were twenty years ago. While there are multiple reasons for increased levels of stress and anxiety in children and each child has their own triggers and circumstances, I can tell you this: Kids today are play deprived.

Kids are doing a lot of things from preschool on, but what they aren’t doing enough of is the very thing that will help them thrive. We simply aren’t making enough time for play in this busy, go go go world.

Benefits of high level play:

  • Stress relief – kids work through their emotions by playing.
  • Emotional regulation – kids learn to identify and regulate their emotions through play.
  • Exploration of passions – they figure out what makes them tick.
  • Increased social skills.
  • Improved communication skills.
  • Increased creativity and creative thinking.
  • Improved problem solving skills.
  • They connect with friends, siblings and caregivers on a deeper level.
  • Try on new roles and make sense of the world around them.
  • Cope with and overcome fears and worries.

I could go on and on and on…the benefits of play are many. Stand back and watch your kids play for an hour and you’ll see your own benefits – unique to your own child. That’s the wonderful thing about play. When kids tap into high level imaginative play, they work through their own unique needs at the moment.

When is my child too old for unstructured play?

Never! I see eleven-year-old kids working through difficult emotions and stressful situations through play. I see teens let go of their insecurities simply by getting down on the floor and playing! I’ve seen adults learn to let go of their own stress by engaging in unstructured play with their kids. Truly, the power of play knows no age restrictions.

I know that it’s tempting to try every sport and enroll in every enrichment program that comes your way, but the truth is that kids don’t need constant adult direction. They time to figure things out on their own. If we don’t give them the opportunity to work through various situations independently and in a way that makes sense to them, how can we expect them to act as problem solvers out in the world? How can we expect them to gain independence?

Drop everything and play this holiday season. Your kids need it. The truth is…you probably do, too.

For more information on the healing power of play and how to encourage a playful environment, pick up your copy of The Happy Kid Handbook today.

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About Katie

Katie Hurley is a Child, Adolescent, and Family Psychotherapist and Parenting Expert in Los Angeles, CA. She works in private practice in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, writes for PBS Parents, Washington Post Parents, and the Huffington Post. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World" (Tarcher/Penguin, 2015) and the forthcoming "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" (Penguin Random House, 2018)