In a tightly scheduled world, the need for play has never been greater. A look at its benefits — and how to encourage it.
Even though children increasingly spend most summer days inside or at a full-day camp program, the idealistic image of summertime is still one of free play: neighbors racing bikes, friends building a fort, siblings producing a show, a family on the beach.
What is it about play that’s so alluring, and how exactly is play beneficial? How can families encourage play — especially in an overscheduled, anxious environment, and even when work schedules are tight or when safety concerns prevent neighborhood roaming?
Play is Everything
When we think of “play,” we shouldn’t be thinking of any single type of activity. Play comes in many forms.
- In social play, children play with one another or with adults: tossing a ball, creating friendly competitions, acting out make-believe sagas, etc.
- In independent play, children play by themselves: telling stories with their action figures or stuffed animals, doing puzzles, building with blocks, etc.
- In guided play, children play within a context that adults have set up. For example, a camp counselor might pose, “We’re going to put on a play using these props. What do you think the play should be about? How should we start it?”
In play, children learn to navigate their physical and social environment, while also imagining and constructing new realities. They practice solving problems, testing out how to love, what is wise, and what is safe. One study found that, neurologically, play can stimulate the “fight or flight” response without triggering cortisol (the stress chemical usually accompanying fight or flight) — a useful way to practice handling danger.
“My take is that any activity can be play or not play,” says Ben Mardell, a researcher, educator, and expert on play and development. “The secret sauce is playfulness” — the ability to see a situation and be curious about it, realize it can be enjoyable, and take agency over it. “It’s like ‘A Spoonful of Sugar’ in Mary Poppins. Even cleaning up can be fun, if you have the right mindset,” says Mardell, who leads an investigation of play at Project Zero.
The Many Benefits of Play
Because play is so varied, there are many benefits to it — benefits that are just as real for preschoolers as for middle-schoolers. Towards the Pedagogy of Play, a working paper from Project Zero, lays out some of the advantages of learning through play:
- Intellectual development: Play builds executive function skills, content knowledge, and creative thinking. When children build with blocks or draw, they are counting, classifying, and creating and examining patterns. When children engage in dramatic play, they are practicing telling stories in a sensible order, using rich vocabulary, and writing. Construction play in particular has shown to build problem-solving and mathematical skills, says Lynneth Solis, who researches play and development at Project Zero.
- Social development: Playing with others means noticing social cues, listening, and taking another person’s perspective — key aspects to developing empathy. Social play also requires children to share ideas and express feelings while negotiating and reaching compromises.
- Emotional development: Especially in social and guided play, children learn self-regulation as they follow norms and pay attention while experiencing feelings such as anticipation or frustration. Play also teaches children how to set and change rules, and how to decide when to lead and when to follow.
- Physical development: Many children choose to play through their bodies, and physical wellbeing is important for success in other domains. In sports, outdoor games, and dance, children develop strength, muscle control, coordination, and reflexes. They push limits and try new things — racing down a hill, swimming underwater — that can motivate them to take risks in other circumstances.
Not all types of play have these benefits, of course, and occasionally it can be difficult for an outside observer to discern “good play” from teasing or mindlessness. (For example: Are the campers on the field actually playing tag, or are they just taunting each other?)
In these situations, adults should look for three indicators of playful learning: choice, wonder, and delight. Choice looks like kids setting goals, developing and sharing ideas, making rules, negotiating challenges, and choosing how long to play. Wonder looks like kids exploring, creating, pretending, imagining, and learning from trial and error. Delight looks like happiness: kids smiling, laughing, being silly, or generally feeling cozy and at ease.
Rediscovering Play in an Overscheduled World
In our tightly scheduled world, some kids feel uncomfortable when they have the opportunity to play freely. They may retreat to their technology, complain about boredom, or fight. Mardell and Solis provide suggestions on how parents can foster a playful household:
- Plan for play, and create the space for it. If kids have been spending too much time in front of screens, say to them, “Tomorrow, let’s have some of your friends over here to play,” or “Let’s walk over to the playground this afternoon for a few hours and have some fun.”
- Find fun in the materials you have. “A lot of the things that you have in your garage or in your kitchen might actually be quite engaging for children of all ages,” says Solis. Rather than always buying new toys, for example, use leftover Amazon boxes. Say to kids, “You can build a fort, or a time machine, or whatever you want. Take over the living room.” This ability to choose how materials will be used can spur creativity.
- Be open to risk. Part of letting children play is acknowledging that they might get a scrape or bang their knee — and that that’s okay. If you let children know that you trust them to take small risks, they’ll likely enjoy creating and exploring.
- Model play. “There has to be a culture of adult play in order for children to play as well,” says Solis. “If children watch their parents or grandparents having hobbies, enjoying a soccer match, being creative, being outside, then it’s more likely for kids to say, ‘With all this summer time that I have, I’d rather go build a fort than sit in front of the TV.’”
- Play together. “I knew this as a kid, and I’ve experienced this as a parent: Your kids actually do want to play with you,” says Mardell. Build sandcastles together, dress up together, or tell stories together. “Really get into the spirit of the play and doing it together. That’s the beauty of summertime or vacation.”
- Wait out the cries of “I’m bored.” Kids often have to pass through that initial discomfort and recover the space and presence to be self-directed and curious. But with time, they’ll emerge on the other side and settle into an activity.
Choosing a Playful Summer Program
Realistically, children will spend at least part of their summer in a camp program — but that doesn’t mean free play has to end. Look for camps that have opportunities for downtime and fun. Academics and extracurriculars may be important year-round pursuits in your family, but “this is also a time to build other muscles, physically and emotionally, and in terms of leadership, resilience, and self-sufficiency,” says Mardell.
If you’ve registered your child for a camp that’s focused only on one sport or one instrument, look for other opportunities for unstructured, kid-directed play. If you haven’t registered for camp yet, or if you do want an academically enriching camp experience, look for one with a spirit of “maker-centered learning,” says Solis. That might mean a camp that has a designated makerspace, but it might also mean a camp where there are various opportunities to build, create, or experiment. When every moment of a child’s day is planned, says Solis, what can get lost is the “openness and flexibility for new insights or creativity to arise, or for the imagination to run wild, or for kids to play with everyday objects in unique ways.”