Power of Play

There’s a quote from child psychologist Anna Freud, daughter of Sigmund, that I’ve always loved: “Play is the work of children.” It’s so profound because it’s so true.

Power of PlayWe tend to think of work as serious and play as frivolous. But if you’ve ever watched a child deeply engaged in play of his or her own devising—creating and populating an entire fantasy world, or endlessly pouring liquid from one bowl into another, or driving cars across the living room floor—you know that it’s serious business!

Self-directed play is also seriously good for children; this kind of play is essential to kids’ cognitive, emotional, social, and physical well-being.

The key word here is “self-directed.” This means that the child chooses what to play and how to play it, making up the rules as she goes along. There’s no adult saying, “Oh, let’s do this,” and directing the activity. Self-directed play allows kids to use their creativity and imagination and contributes to healthy brain development. There are lots of other benefits, as well: Kids that have had a lot of time in self-directed play develop leadership skills, make better decisions, and have better problem-solving skills.

Playing video games is not the same thing; even board games, while outstanding for promoting family bonding, do not offer the same benefits as the kind of play that comes directly from a child’s imagination and instincts. To a busy parent, this kind of play may sometimes look like nothing at all, but the child is actually doing something really important: He’s exploring his world, and figuring out how to navigate it.

But it’s getting harder and harder for children to find these quiet moments of play.

The hours are filled with school and sports and enrichment and volunteer work and tutoring, and all the activities and studies that will get children into good colleges. Schools are so focused on achievement and standardized tests that many no longer offer daily recess periods. (I think of those poor students, trapped too long indoors, and their poor teachers!)

That’s why I urge parents to carve out time in the day when children can just…play. Believe me, I have enormous empathy for rushed, busy, overtaxed parents who are thinking, “What time?” But here’s the good news: You don’t have to do anything. In fact, that’s the point! The kids should be doing the playing; your job is just to provide a safe play environment and some play “tools” (there’s more on that below).

The kids will do the work of play all by themselves. Here are some guidelines:

Designate play time. Ideally, you’ll have a consistent time every day that is set aside for play. Having a time they can depend on will give kids a sense of security and anticipation; their imaginations will start going when they know playtime is coming up.

Don’t intrude! Remember, this is their time. There’s always a temptation for parents to want to jump in and run the show—don’t do it! Unless a child is doing something dangerous or you need to step in to stem an argument (“You need to share” might be the universal parent mantra), children are capable of doing things themselves. The point of playtime is for their creativity to take flight; this is what develops a child’s sense of competence. (However, don’t take this as an opportunity to bury yourself in your cell phone! Nothing tells a child “I’m not paying attention to you” like the sight of their parent bent over a screen.)

Wait to be asked. If they seek out your help or participation, that’s a great opportunity to fully engage with your child and expand horizons. When they ask questions, try turning the tables on them: “What do you think? Where can we go find the answer to that?” Or provide some information and then suggest going to the library to get books on the topic of interest. But remember that this is your child’s activity, and his or her curiosity should be the driving force.

Don’t hurry them. When playtime is over, let them clean up their space. Even if it takes a while to tidy up the mess (and even if you’re sorely tempted to jump in and get it done faster) let them help. The rewards—their sense of self-confidence and usefulness—are well worth the extra time.

Have a wide variety of “tools” at hand. You’re the best judge of your child’s interests and abilities, but there are plenty of toys and materials that are simple and inexpensive, and offer huge payoffs in fun:

  • Balls of all sizes
  • Stacking toys or cups (great for babies)
  • Stainless steel bowls (We’d set my son up outside with a bowl of water and a mixing spoon and he’d be set for hours.)
  • Clean containers with twist-off caps (My two-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter loves twisting the caps off old plastic jars, and they’re a perfect size for a preschoolers hand.)
  • Egg cartons
  • Milk cartons
  • Washable paints and butcher paper
  • Yarn
  • Paper plates
  • Old clothing, ribbons, scarves—these are great for making costumes and inspire that magical thinking that kids are so good at. Even household towels can be used as superhero capes.

In my view, self-directed play is as important for children as vitamins—maybe moreso! Free play builds confidence and competence, helps children learn to control their environment, and form deep-seated connectedness with others. Kids who can create their own play learn to be resilient, become optimistic, and rebound more easily from adversity. They also don’t get bored. All of these things will stand them in good stead in school…and beyond.

In fact, the play your children engage in now will pay tremendous dividends for the rest of their lives.