Play is your child’s superpower
Understand the importance of play
Let your child play! Professional social workers like me, but also pediatricians, psychologist and therapists have said it for many years. Neuroscientists proofed it, too: Play is not a waste of time! Besides love and nurture, I would say play is the most important thing in childhood. And because it is so important, the United Nations have actually put the right to play in the UN- Convention of the children’s rights (http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CRC.aspx). And all UN Nations – except for the USA – have ratified this UN – Children’s Rights Convention.
Article 31 of this convention says: “States Parties recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.” There are reasons, why the United Nations explicitly gave children the right of rest, leisure and play:
The urge to play is an evolutional necessity. A natural desire.
As soon as child’s basic needs for nurture, security and sleep are fulfilled, it will automatically start to play. It’s a natural desire and just as important for healthy child development as love, food and sleep. A baby will playfully start to discover its body and what it can do with it. As soon as a baby has figured out how to crawl it will playfully start to explore its environment.
In order to grow up into healthy, capable and responsible adults, children must play. The more they play, the more they learn and the more capable they will be later.
Not only humans play. Go to the zoo and visit the baby bears, baby lions, baby monkeys, etc. They all play. When you watch them for a while, you will see that by playing, they are discovering, they are experimenting, they are interacting with others, they are trying out everything: the limits of their bodies, of materials, their courage and strength and the limits of other group members. Who can they tease? How will the others react?
They are enjoying play so much, that they do it all the time. It’s like an addiction. They only stop for food, sleep and affection. (Even though you could probably see them playing while eating or cuddling.) Once their basic needs are satisfied, they start all over again. In play they keep constantly pushing their own boundaries. So they become more skillful, more courageous and stronger every day. Play is the perfect training for becoming an adult. Through play, they learn everything they need for becoming a grown up lion, bear or monkey.
What is so important about play?
Well, the list about the importance of play could probably go on forever. Just think of some wonderful childhood memories that later helped you through hard times in life. I am sure play is somewhere in there. But our society likes some good arguments for giving children the time and space to play. The pure joy of it, doesn’t seem to be a good enough argument when the child could be using that time to study for school instead and when there is so much fear about what all could happen if you gave your child that freedom. However people tend to forget, what all will happen, if you take away your child’s the freedom to play.
Here are some arguments for why it is our absolute responsibility to make sure that our children can play as much as possible:
Play is serious business!
Have you ever taken the time to really observe playing children for a while? Well then you know, that play is not a game, it is serious business! Of course it is a game, too – but a serious one. A child totally emerged into its play is concentrating so much, it forgets everything else. Which mom wouldn’t wish the kid was concentrating on math homework as much as it is during play? During play, a child is exactly practicing that: concentration, endurance and frustration tolerance.
Through play children learn to be persistent. They “work” really hard on accomplishing whatever they have set their mind on. Just watch a child learn to walk or to build a tower out of little wooden blocks. No matter how often they fail, they will try again and again until they succeed. And then they will be truly proud and happy when they finally succeed and then they are motivated to start the next task.
Like heroin to the brain
When you watch little children, you will see, that throughout the day, they have these moments of pure joy and excitement. It is like ecstasy.
Neuroscientists (as you can read in many publications of Prof. Dr. Gerhald Hüther, see http://www.gerald-huether.de/content/international/) have proven, that this joyful feeling of success in play causes a chemical reaction in the brain, which feels just like a drug high. It is like “heroin” to the brain. It triggers great feelings and the wish for more of such experiences. Hence the strong motivation to keep on playing, keep on trying, experimenting and learning. Like the neuroscientist Prof. Dr. Gerhald Hüther emphasizes in many of his publications and presentations (see http://www.gerald-huether.de/content/international/audio_and_video/) emotions are like fertilizer to the brain. The more joy a child experiences while learning, the profounder the learning experience will be. Because of this positive feeling that comes along with such success, child does not only learn whatever it is figuring out in this particular moment like how to build a high tower with blogs. The child also learns to be motivated and that it worth to put in some effort because the successful outcome will be worth it.
Play is exploring and experimenting
Through play children explore the surroundings with their never-ending curiosity. They experiment and find out how things work in this world and that it is wonderful to learn new things.
They do not only “understand” things, they truly “grasp” by touching, trying, experimenting and observing. They learn the basic laws of physics, of math etc. Training this curiosity and knowing how this world functions are good foundations for subjects to be studied later.
Play is creativity and innovation
When we play, there is no stress, no purpose, and no goal to meet. Whatever we do, we do it for the pure pleasure. We are in a relaxed state of mind and open for new ideas and discoveries. This is exactly, how we manage to “think out of the box” and have the best ideas. This is, how we learn to see things from different perspectives, how we discover and invent something new. In play, our children learn to let their imagination soar.
I witnessed my children go on polar expeditions in dark winter evenings in our back yard with nothing but flashlights in their hands, make wedding dresses out of tissues for the teddy bears, take a chair train into adventures and build a living room out of snow.
We humans need play for creativity and innovation. Creativity and innovation are key qualifications which have become more and more important in our modern society. Well, maybe not so much for very low paying jobs. But if you want your child to have a successful career later, creativity and innovative thinking will be vital.
You surly have heard about the story of Isaak Newton: People say, he was sitting under an apple tree, when an apple fell down. And in this moment, he discovered the laws of gravity.
Social competence and forming sustainable relationships
When we let our children play with others – without constantly interfering -, they learn the rules of social interaction. They learn that their behavior triggers reactions of the other children. They learn that the other children’s behavior makes them feel happy or unhappy. They learn how far they can go, how to speak their mind, how to get along with others, how to respect the limits of others and how to say no themselves. They learn that if they always put their wishes first the other kids will play without them. They will learn that not voicing their needs and just following others will not make them happy either. They will learn to deal with disappointment and difficult behaviors of others. They will also experience what a good feeling it is to belong to a group, to build sustainable relationships. They will practice social negotiation processes and how to find compromises.
However when we constantly supervise our children, when we constantly interfere as soon as they are having a conflict with others, then we take away their opportunity to learn how that it is ok to disagree. Of course there are situations in which we need to interfere. For example when a child is overwhelmed with a situation, when there is mobbing and bullying involved. Then we do have to intervene in ways, which open the child the possibility to solve the problem. However, how are our children supposed to learn how to solve conflicts, if we never let them try? If we don’t let our children learn the basics of social interaction, they will grow up to be lonely and unhappy people. That is why I believe that play with peers – without constant interference of adults – is key for the ability to form sustainable relationships in life.
Our children need to move and be physically active. The best way to achieve this – in my opinion – is to let them play outside and walk and bike to places. Through active outdoor play they train their gross and fine motor skills and their overall physical fitness, which of course is good for their health. However, furthermore scientists have even found a link between physical fitness and academic performance. “Physical activity can have both immediate and long-term benefits on academic performance.” See: https://activelivingresearch.org/sites/default/files/ALR_Brief_ActiveEducation_Jan2015.pdf
Unfortunately in our modern society less and less children are playing outside. Growing numbers of adolescents are spending more and more time sitting while studying or sitting in front of TVs, computers, tablets and play stations. Many parents are afraid of the risks of outdoor play (as written above there is a whole industry created to scare us of what could happen) and forget that the likelihood of those risks almost nothing compared to the statistical likelihood, that your children might suffer the risks of a lack of outdoor play. “Insufficient physical activity is one of the leading risk factors of death worldwide” so the WHO http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs385/en/
As you can read in many publications the lack of outdoor play and physical activity causes many health problems even in young children. The WHO states that more and more children are overweight and even obese, not only because of the food they eat, but also because of their lack of physical activity. http://www.who.int/dietphysicalactivity/childhood_why/en/, http://www.who.int/end-childhood-obesity/news/public-consultation-2017/en/
Not only are more and more children becoming overwheight, but the heaviest children even are getting heavier and it is no secret, that the consequences of overweight are often depressive symdroms, diabetes, asthma, high cholesterol levels and higher risks of stroke, cardiovascular disease etc. (see: http://www.obesity.org/obesity/resources/facts-about-obesity/childhood-overweight ). In Germany about 15 % of the 3- to 17-year olds are overweight ( https://www.bzga-kinderuebergewicht.de/basisinformationen/fakten-und-folgen/) in the US about 17% are overweighthttp://www.obesity.org/obesity/resources/facts-about-obesity/childhood-overweight.
Outdoor play crucial for the physical health of our children.
I know this list is not complete, however I hope it gives you some arguments, whenever you have to stand up for your child’s right to play.
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