Play. It’s Not Just for Fun
It’s 11:30am and I’m having a therapy session with 4 year-old Kyle and his mother at their home. As I’m pulling out my sand tray, dolls, Lincoln Logs and puzzles for Kyle to choose from he begins to tear open the bag with the figurines (small dolls and animals). Kyle’s mom sought services because as she reported, Kyle was fighting with others in preschool, refusing to follow directions at home and “bouncing off the walls” all the time. I take a moment to calmly remind him of the rules of our play: He has to wait till it’s his turn, use his words to ask for what he wants, keep the sand in the bin and yes, clean up when he is done and before moving on to the next game or set of toys. He waits till I have pulled all the options out of my bag and then he tells me he wants to play with the sand tray and the figurines. His mother asks from the kitchen where she is preparing a snack, “What will you two be working on today?” It is not the first time I explain the tenants of play therapy to Kyle’s mom but I gently remind her of the role of play in Kyle’s development and ask her to join us on the floor where Kyle will lead the play and while following the rules, he will also be in charge of what he plays with and how. Essentially, he will have free play but with his mother and his therapist as mirrors, play mates and models.
The Role of Play in Optimal Child Development
The amount of free play experienced by children in the United States has been on the decline for over a decade. Some important factors in this decrease include:
- A Hurried Lifestyle
- A Change in Family Structure (more single parents and/or both parents working out of the home)
- Increased focus on academics and enrichment (i.e. structured children’s activities)
The decrease in play time for children is a serious matter and should not be taken lightly. The benefits of play are so far reaching that the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights even listed play as a right of every child http://ipaworld.org/childs-right-to-play/uncrc-article-31/un-convention-on-the-rights-of-the-child-1/
Some of the many benefits of play include:
- Mastery and Increased Self-Esteem
- Problem Solving and Dexterity
- Sensory Integration through Proprioception Development
- Parent and Peer Attachment and Bonding
- Increased Imagination and Creativity
Despite these many benefits parents, teachers and institutions alike are forgetting, overlooking or just do not feel that they have time to prioritize the use of play with their child. Since the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 academic requirements for Kindergarteners have increased and many programs report a decrease in recess time. Furthermore, many children are spending hours upon hours with hand held devises or sitting in front of a TV at home or in inadequate day care centers. (Strasburger VC, Donnerstein E. Children, Adolescents, and the Media- Issues and Solutions. Pediatrics. 1999; 103-129-139) However, the good news is that a new emphasis in mental health on early childhood wellness is drawing more attention to the role of play. Additionally, more states are adopting mandatory minimums in play and recess time for young school-aged children. Improved Head Start programs are promoting and providing play for young children while their parent or parents are working. Pediatricians are speaking out and providing guidelines to parents regarding screen time limits and the importance of free play.
Importantly, early childhood advocates such as Social Worker, caregivers and teachers can confidently impress on parents the critical value of play. We can also remind them that engaging with their child in his or her play, being fully present, allowing him to lead while also providing gentle structure and safety is the best way to form lasting bonds and deep connection all the while, helping the child meet her developmental milestones.