To Play or Not to Play

“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning.
But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” – Mr. Rogers
 
There’s a lot going on both in the world, and in our individual lives. It calls upon us to find times for play.
 
To be honest, as a parent, I was clueless about play. Although occasionally the impulse caught me undefended, and I ended up skipping, laughing, and bouncing children on legs, mostly I was multi-tasking, trying to combine work, school and parenting. One of the reasons I became a “Play Therapist” was to learn about play and heal the part of myself that both craved it and avoided it.
 
As an elementary school counselor, I witnessed play being cut from the school day out of fear that there was not enough time for learning. In some schools it was sacrilege to include play, meaningful laughter, fun, and games, as an integral component to classroom learning. Yet, personally in my contact with kids, I found that children responded really well to silliness and games in learning new things, as long as it was done with limits and genuine regard and connection.
 
It turns out that play could be viewed as children’s science or theater of learning. Play impacts their health, social emotional learning, control, regulation, confidence, communication, care for others, strength, problem solving, and physical skills. It’s 100% backed by research, early childhood education, and brain experts. The imagination, movement, curiosity, exploration, and joy of play enhances learning. In a quote from the Smithsonian Magazine, “When children pretend, they’re not just being silly, they are doing science…It’s a crucial part of what makes human beings smart.”
 
If play is an essential part of healthy child development and the way children learn, why is recognition of play so hard? I have a few guesses, and you may have some more. Our society, with the exception of a few insane TV shows, doesn’t value play. The importance of attainment and success is based on working hard, not taking breaks, and not connecting with others in fun ways. 
 
Many of us lost the joy and magic of childhood, either by not experiencing it, or by leaving it behind. We simply don’t know the benefits or are afraid to jump ship and try. Sadly and honestly, on the other side of privilege, issues of safety, security, and parents working multiple jobs interfere with play.
 
It’s never too late. Once we understand the value and how to join in, it’s easier to give it a try. With repetition, our neuroplastic brains can rewire for play. Here are three types of play that give parents opportunities for meaningful connection with their kids.
 
   –Rough and Tumble Full Body Play includes wrestling around, bouncing, lifting, and swinging. It does not include pinning down and tickling, which can be experienced as loss of power and threat, even when there are “tickled giggles”. Besides the chances for developing strength, and coordination, rough and tumble teaches kids and adults to look at faces for communication cues, listen for cues, express needs, and collaborate. It’s  an opportunity to learn if there is pleasure and fun or distress, which could be muffled by giggles or shown in an anxious face. It gives the chance to develop skills of expressing clear communication and limits, and helps discharge excess energy. 
 
   –Silly and ridiculous play is about relaxing, laughing, and clowning. Although there may be limits to little boy gross and bathroom talk, some silliness can be a key to cooperation, mutual ownership, and learning. There are also silly walks, silly lifts, and silly games that can become family rituals and memories. It’s a great chance to look into eyes and share flashing smiles and understanding connections. Out of silly, ridiculous play can come  the theater of learning new ways to communicate, relate, and do things. Combined with learning, it avoids shame and creates neural pathways out of old patterns into new ones. Kids are more likely to remember practiced skills given a dose of the silly and ridiculous, than those advised in an ambiance of discipline and punishment.
 

  –Imaginative Play is the beautiful natural imagination of the child set free, resourcing imaginative hearts and amazing super powers. Participating in imaginative play is a wonderful chance to observe, learn from, and delight in the world of the child. It can be the language of children. it’s the way they play out what’s bothering them, expressing what’s front and center or under the surface of their lives. Depending on their age, they can use imaginative play to practice roles they observe, to feel empowered, and to master skills. To join a child in admiration and witnessing of imaginative play is to glimpse into their lives and what is most important for them. Shared  imagination can stimulate curiosity about the mundane and engage children in normal daily activities.

Play builds safety and trust. It helps discharge energy, and it definitely is an adult’s opportunity for connection and communicating acceptance. It requires surrender, and accesses joy. It’s an opportunity to relate to the eyes and hearts of your playmate. Play is children teaching us that there is magic all around us.
 
Mr. Rogers adds, “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” 
 
And when we join, we are gifted a window into the the heart the child.
  

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