You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation. – Plato
I usually tell parents some version of this quote when they ask me, “What can you learn by watching my child in the playroom? He’s just playing.” Well, play is the work of a child—an important part of their development. Play makes children more flexible and adaptable, builds connections in their brains and teaches them how to handle the world and their social roles in it. It is a learning experience.
As children get older they move out of the safer world of childhood play to take on more real life challenges. Dr. Stuart Brown, author of Play¹ and founder of the National Institute of Play tells us that children need play the same way they need sleep.
When parents are told about the importance of play, often the take-home message is that children should play for their development. What is not always stressed is why it is important for parents to play with their children. Now “playing with your child” does not mean that a parent always chooses a play activity and the child follows. In letting your child lead the play, you are granting your child independence, unleashing their creativity and helping them to explore the world with confidence.
Balancing this approach with parent-led play activities helps to encourage and guide your child, teaches sharing and turn-taking. Play strengthens the relationship between a parent and child. Who would have thought that satisfying your child’s request to attend their imaginary tea party would promote all of these life skills?
Unfortunately, playtime is disappearing for children. The Milo State of Play study looked at the play habits of children in New Zealand². In March 2012, their report revealed that 94% of parents and grandparents believed in the importance of play, but 45% of children aged 8 to 12 no longer play every day. Here are some more worrisome findings:
• 37% of children say they have run out of ideas for play so they turn to electronic devices for amusement
• Almost half of children’s free time is spent watching TV, playing video games or on electronic devices
• 44% of children claim they are too tired from school or have too much homework to play
• 43% of parents struggle to find time to play with their children
Nowadays, playtime has been replaced with more scheduled and structured activities. This is especially true for South Asian families where there is more involvement in activities that promote academic success. South Asian parents will be interested to know that play is connected to creativity and achievement.
Tony Wagner, author of Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World³, explains, “When play is unhurried and unstructured, it allows time for boredom, which can lead to discovery through trial and error—with support from a parent who encourages, but stays out of the way.” Without free play, children lose their ability to be innovative.
~ Neha Navsaria, PhD is a child psychologist with interests in parent-child relationships, parenting issues, immigrant mental health and cross-cultural psychology. She is grateful her connection to extended family, travels and family migration history from East Africa have given her a greater understanding of the South Asian diaspora in multiple countries. Using these international perspectives, she hopes to invite readers into the world of research and connect them with studies that mirror their lives. She encourages everyone to create space for their own playtime.
¹Brown, S. (2009). Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul. Avery, New York
²Sweeney Research. (2012). MILO State of Play Report. New Zealand
³Wagner, T. (2012). Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World. Scribner, New York