To an adult, a cardboard box is nothing more than packaging. To a child, it can be a spaceship, an underwater cave, a race car, a library or even an imaginary robot friend. Watching a young child play in this imaginative way, it might seem like she’s doing nothing more than having fun. But there’s a lot more to it than that. As a child runs, builds, climbs and creates worlds out of thin air, she’s doing important work.
Why Kids Play
Play is how children figure out the big and confusing world around them. It’s so important that the United Nations lists play as one of the fundamental human rights to which children are entitled.
Kids don’t do small talk. When they meet new people, they bond through play. Picture two preschoolers building a block tower together. As they talk and work, they might discover that they both love dragons and both have big sisters, that they have different favorite colors and live in different places. Those conversations build the framework for a friendship. If they enjoy building the tower together, they might decide to go try another activity together.
It’s not just peers who bond over play: children and adults bond this way too. When a parent gets down on the floor to color or drive trains with her child, the two of them enjoy some quality time spent on an even playing field. Mom takes a break from telling her child to clean up, hurry up, quiet down or do what she says. She can focus on listening to her child and making him feel important while they do something fun together.
Children also learn to get along through play. They learn to take turns, wait patiently, negotiate and compromise with others. Kids who don’t play nicely with others might learn that they’ll be shunned unless they behave cooperatively.
Kids learn to be independent through play. Instead of passively sitting in front of a screen, imaginative play requires children to entertain themselves using nothing more than their own minds – and sometimes, other kids or a few props. That’s a valuable skill for kids to develop at a young age.
Another wonderful benefit of play? Unlike many activities that kids participate in these days, there’s no structure or stress around play. It represents a much-needed break from homework, sports practices, music lessons, clubs and other adult-led activities.
Play also helps a child process their experiences. That’s why kids so often act out things they’ve seen their parents and teachers do. They’re trying to understand why and how the world works.
Some parents, worried about the competitive world that awaits, feel pressured to direct children toward more so-called “educational” activities instead of letting them play. But some experts say that play is just as important for a child’s brain as school lessons are. Unstructured free play changes the way neurons in the prefrontal cortex work, priming the brain for problem solving and emotional regulation, say researchers at the University of Lethbridge.
Chasing friends around the playground and building forts also helps kids develop their language skills, as they give instructions, ask questions, describe their ideas and carry on conversations. They’re laying the groundwork for the writing and reading skills they will eventually develop in the classroom.
The local playground may look nothing like an office, but it’s an important workplace all the same. Kids will spend thousands of hours sitting behind desks, working on math lessons and practicing spelling. The time they spend nurturing their imaginations, figuring out how to cooperate and experiencing the joys of childhood? There’s never enough of that.