The Importance of Play in Child Development
Is there anything that sounds more joyful than the sound of kids at play? The happiness on their faces and the sound of bliss in their voices show how much kids enjoy being able to play and engage with friendships in their community. Oftentimes, school and community playgrounds are the foundation of friendships that last years. Long-lasting friendships are not the only benefit of play and playgrounds. Read on to learn more about the benefits of play.
Read the full article or skip to a specific section:
- Benefits of Play for Children
- Emotional Benefits of Play
- Social Benefits of Play
- Mental and Creative Benefits of Play
- Physical Benefits of Play
- Benefits of Play to Different Age Groups
- Importance of Non-Screen Time
- Encouraging Your Children to Play
- Miracle® Recreation Wants to Help Your Kids Have Fun
Playgrounds: The Emotional, Social, Mental and Physical Benefits
Increased self-esteem, improved collaboration skills, enhanced critical thinking skills, and a strengthened immune system are just some of the high-level benefits children gain by being able to play. The following sections will take an in-depth look at how play positively impacts children emotionally, socially, mentally, and physically.
Benefits of Play on Playgrounds for Children
In the 21st century, with our harried and nonstop family lifestyles, many temptations can lure your kids away from play. Television, computer games and smartphones all aim to capture a significant portion of kids’ attention. Advertisers and retailers are increasingly reaching out to younger and younger kids in an effort to convince them or their parents to buy new electronic products. In this push for kids to have more and more screen time, we’re neglecting one of the most important elements of their development: time to play.
Why is playing important? Play is so essential for child development around the world that the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights recognizes it as a right of every child. Play is critical for kids to develop the emotional, social and creative thinking skills they’ll need when they’re adults. Play allows them to engage with their surrounding environment and with others in their community in a fun context. It enables them to explore ideas and different ways to behave, testing their boundaries and growing in the process.
So what exactly defines play, and why is it crucial? Experts define play as “any spontaneous or organized activity that provides enjoyment, entertainment, amusement or diversion.” All play is valuable, but free, unstructured play might be the most crucial. It allows kids to be independent, to learn how to make decisions on their own to achieve a result.
An internal monologue of a kid at play might go something like this: “Should I go down the slide? It looks awfully steep. It’s kind of scary. But I want to try, so I’ll do it.” In that simple act of going down the slide, they’re learning the basics of many critical skills they’ll need later in their adult lives. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of play in child development.
Emotional Benefits of Play
How is play important to child development? Unstructured free play promotes children’s emotional development in three key ways.
- Builds kids’ self-esteem and confidence to try things they’ve never tried before: When kids on a playground climb a ladder or swing from monkey bars, it provides a challenge for them. They’re not necessarily easy tasks. But when a child overcomes them, as they swing the entire length of the bars, it gives them a sense of self-esteem and confidence. Whether they’re playing alone or in a group, play provides kids with the confidence to interact with others or play on their own.
- Allows kids to experience a range of emotions normally not available to them in other situations: Imagination allows kids to overcome reality in ways that encourage them to deal with scary feelings. With older kids, free play can help them develop essential life skills like humor, tolerance and spontaneity. Perhaps most important of all, they learn to develop patience. Sometimes on the playground, you must wait your turn, and that means learning how to deal with frustration and occasional boredom.
- Helps them overcome trauma: When kids are young, even the death of a pet can create intense emotions. Play provides a way for children to release their emotions and share their feelings.
- Brings them closer to their parents: Kids don’t only play with their friends. Sometimes, they want to play with their parents. Asking for assistance when they tackle those difficult monkey bars for the first time, helping build a city in a playground’s sandbox — when parents and children share these activities, it helps produce a strong emotional bond and a sense of trust.
Research shows the brain continues to grow after birth, and is about 80% of the adult size by the time a child is 2. Play helps with this development by stimulating your child’s brain and helping them learn to communicate and deal with emotions, both simple and complicated.
Social Benefits of Play
One reason children look forward to playtime is that it gives them a chance to see and engage with their friends outside of organized activity, like school. Playing on playgrounds or in a park allows children to make new friends and even learn how to deal with stressful situations with old friends. When playing with others, kids learn the following.
- How to navigate a complex social network: When you look at a playground, you usually see a group of kids happily at play. But much more is happening than meets the eye. As kids play with each other, they’re learning critical everyday skills and lessons about engaging with others, social norms and even independence.
- How to listen: When kids invent a game and rules about how to play that game, they must listen carefully to what the other kids are saying. They learn how to ask for clarification. They determine how to negotiate and compromise. Listening is one of the most valuable skills for any adult, and on the playground, this skill can blossom.
- How to collaborate: Many children’s games don’t involve a winner or a loser, but instead some shared activity that includes a common goal. To achieve that goal, kids learn to work together and help each other. They become part of a team of friends who work together.
- How to play with others: Role-playing helps kids understand real-life relationships. They begin to learn about roles and the cultural rules that determine them. They develop relationships and then test them, perhaps as often as each new trip to the playground. They learn self-control, and as mentioned above, they find out about collaboration and negotiation. It’s where they take the first steps that prepare them for relationships with others throughout their life.
- How to gain independence: Many people might think playing by yourself doesn’t encourage any social skills. However, when a kid plays alone, it gives them an opportunity to observe other kids at play and learn what the norms are within the group. Then, when they want to move toward group play, they’re more aware of the rules expected of the participants. Playing alone also helps stimulate kids’ creativity and imagination, and ultimately helps them develop independence.
Mental and Creative Benefits of Play
Want to be a pirate? An airplane pilot? Perhaps an explorer or astronaut? The great thing about play is that it allows children to use their imaginations to create all those worlds where they can be anything they want to be. Playgrounds help children develop the following.
- Enhanced critical thinking skills: When children feel empowered to be whatever their imaginations conjure up, it encourages them to develop situations where creativity pushes them to improve critical thinking skills and problem-solving. They learn what works and what doesn’t, as well as when to keep trying and when it makes sense to stop.
- Increased attention spans: When children, even as young as 7 or 8, spend hours texting or looking at six-second videos for entertainment, it does little to help them learn how to deal with tasks that require focused attention for longer periods. But free play that can sometimes last for hours helps build their attention spans. Kids who have difficulty sitting still, or who struggle with pen-and-paper assignments, can deal with these longer-term tasks much more successfully after they’ve had a chance to play outside.
- Improved motor skills: When kids play outside on a playground, they test their bodies’ abilities in a way that’s difficult to do inside. Climbing, swinging and digging in the dirt all help children develop their motor skills.
- No labels or preconceived ideas: When conventional rules are out the window, as often happens on a playground, kids create new worlds and rules in ways that are sometimes difficult to do at home, and almost impossible to do in a classroom environment. Think of how excited you were when you were a child and would go to the playground and turn a piece of equipment into a spaceship that would take you to faraway planets. Playground equipment can help kids use their creativity and have tons of fun in the process.
- Leadership skills: On most playgrounds, natural leaders will arise from the group. One child might be really good at explaining the rules of the game, or another excels at organizing teams or setting up the obstacle course. Play allows different kids to develop their leadership skills at the same time others are developing theirs, so it’s a win-win for everyone.
Physical Benefits of Play
In addition to the social, emotional and mental benefits of playtime, there are also numerous physical benefits of play for kids.
- Reducing obesity: Parents are probably more than aware that kids nowadays spend many hours a day in front of a TV screen or computer monitor, resulting in an overall less active and far more sedentary life. Getting your kids outside to play for at least an hour a day helps reduce obesity and promotes their physical and emotional well-being.
- Strengthening immune systems: When kids spend more time outdoors playing, they typically spend fewer days being sick at home. Free play helps create strong immune systems.
- Improving schoolwork: Growing up, your parents probably told you to finish your homework before you went outside. It turns out, your parents may have been wrong. Studies show that even letting a child play outside for as little as 20 minutes makes it easier for them to deal with homework and school assignments when they come back inside. When your kids get home, let them put their schoolbooks down and go outside to play. It helps them release pent-up anxiety and frustration and encourages them to relax when they tackle homework.
- Lowering anxiety: Any parent who has watched a child on a rainy Saturday afternoon knows how much bottled-up energy a child can store in that little body, and how it can create anxiety and frustration. Once that sun comes out, open the door or take them down to the playground and let them burn it off.
- Helping with sleep: It’s an oldie but a goodie— kids who spend a significant amount of time outdoors playing on playgrounds tend to sleep much better, go to bed much earlier and wake up more refreshed than children who spend a lot of time indoors.
Benefits of Play to Different Age Groups
The wonderful thing about free play in the outdoors is that it offers different benefits to different age groups. As your child ages and plays, they learn new and vital skills at each level. Researcher Mildred Parten identified six stages of play that children move through as they grow. Consider the following age groups and how they correspond with the various stages of play.
In the first few months, a baby enters the unoccupied play stage. It may look like they’re just making random movements with no specific purpose, but they are learning how the world works, and they are building the foundation for the other stages of play.
From birth until about 2 years old, children are also in the solitary play stage. They may not even notice other children who are sitting or playing right beside them because they’re exploring their world. At this point, they have limited physical, cognitive and social skills, but the time they’re spending alone is part of the developmental benefits of play.
When kids are around 2 years old, they move into the so-called “onlooker” phase. They watch other kids play because doing so helps them learn how to relate to others. They’ll frequently ask questions of the children they’re observing, but typically make no effort to join in the play.
Another type of play at this stage is parallel play. They’ll play alongside other kids but with no interaction. This process will provide a toddler with opportunities to role-play and begin to understand the idea behind the concept of “mine.” This time is also when parents will come to dread the word “again.” While it may be frustrating, repeating actions is essential for your kids because it’s helping them learn to master a skill or task.
3. Younger Kids
Once your child is around the age of 3 or 4, they start to become more interested in other kids than in their toys. Young kids continue to engage in parallel play, and they also enter the stage known as associative play. During this stage, kids take what they learned from the earlier stages of play and use it to engage with other children and practice playing. They start to learn how to share and develop rudimentary problem-solving skills. There’s no formal organization to this kind of play, although kids often have similar goals. They want to play with the same toys — maybe even trade them back and forth.
The other type of play you see at this age is the beginning of cooperative play. Kids learn rules about cooperation and the give-and-take process during this time period. They are taking the first steps toward learning how to use moral reasoning to determine values.
4. Older Kids (Up to Age 12)
While the importance of playgrounds and free play in child development is clear for all kids — including those above the age of 12 — it’s critical during the early school years. Play is how kids learn to socialize. It improves their thinking skills and problem-solving abilities and helps them develop many of the skills they’ll need in adult life. This process is especially important for older kids. One of the ways they frequently explore new roles, complex emotions and even new vocabulary is through fantasy play.
As kids grow up, their play becomes more complex and layered. They start to assume adult roles and think in abstract ways about play. This time is when they’ll also begin to learn about game play and rules. Games like Simon Says help kids learn there are sometimes rules everyone must follow. But it also helps them learn when it’s OK to break away from rules that may not be fair to everyone.
Sadly, as kids grow older, you may need to encourage them to find time for outdoor play. Once they enter school, they’ll begin to deal with peer pressure and being part of the crowd. In the 21st century, this frequently manifests as less time spent playing and more time spent texting or playing computer games. Take them to parks and playgrounds where they can see other kids at play, and encourage them to join in.
Importance of Non-Screen Time
As we’ve noted above, the amount of time kids spend playing outside has decreased precipitously in the past few decades. Children aged 8 to 10 years old now spend nearly eight hours a day engaging with media –– normally smartphones, computers or televisions. Another study found children under age 13 frequently spend less than 30 minutes a week outside playing.
It would be a fool’s errand to try to deny your children all forms of media in the current cultural environment. But when children are getting so little time outside, they’re not getting the opportunity to develop the many skills play — particularly playing outside — provides.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has issued the following recommendations.
- Kids should get plenty of free time: The AAP suggests allowing kids to spend at least one hour a day in unstructured free play. This requirement doesn’t mean you enroll them in organized sports like soccer or baseball, as that’s not unstructured play. You may certainly make time during the week for them to engage in these activities, but they still need time for unstructured play.
- Restrict kids’ media time: Limit screen use to one to two hours a day. No child under age 2 should have any.
- Don’t allow any form of media in a child’s room: Instead, the AAP recommends putting televisions and computers in a shared family area.
- Create a plan for how your kids use their media: It can be helpful to determine where and when children are using media.
Encouraging Your Children to Play
By encouraging your kids to play in unstructured free play, you’re helping them learn the skills they’ll one day need as adults. You’re helping them learn to think more critically and teaching them how to develop relationships with other people, solve problems, understand societal norms and develop leadership skills and independence.
In other words, you’re helping them grow up to be the person you’d always hoped they would be. We mentioned just a few of the benefits of encouraging your children to play outside above, but there are so many more. And perhaps the one we didn’t mention earlier may be among the most important: Playing outdoors is fun.
When you encourage your children to play outside, you remind them of that. All the other answers to the question, “Why is free play important for child development?” link back to the same concept. In the end, having fun is the key that opens the door to all the benefits mentioned above.
Miracle® RecreationWants to Help Your Kids Have Fun
For more than 90 years, Miracle Recreation has been in the business of providing families, schools and communities with playground equipment that encourages all the best benefits of outdoor play. Generations of families have grown up using our playground equipment.
Because we are one of the largest playground equipment manufacturers in the world, we can provide a wide variety of thrilling, exciting outdoor playgrounds that will entertain kids of all ages and abilities and encourage them to use their imaginations in new and creative ways. No matter the size of your project, our team of talented representatives can help you every step of the way in creating your ideal playground. Contact us today to get a quote on the playground of your dreams!