Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Play – An Indispensable Gift To A Child

“ Research demonstrates that developmentally appropriate play with parents and peers is a singular opportunity to promote the social-emotional, cognitive, language and self-regulation skills that build executive function and a prosocial brain.”

The above quote comes from a report by Dr. Michael Yogman, Assistant Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and colleagues appearing in the journal Pediatrics, in which pediatricians are urged to prescribe play to parents in a similar way they were encouraged to  Reach out and Read. Now it is – Reach out and Play.

Why the Directive to Reach Out and Play?

As Michael Yogman and associates describe, the impetus of early childhood programs and even early grade school has been to add academic learning at the cost of playful learning. Whereas children may learn content in teacher-focused structured activities, in play, children are exposed to the process of learning needed for collaboration, problem solving and creativity. Play stimulates brain development and functioning.

How to Foster Play In Children

A look at the different types of play that Dr. Yogman and colleagues describe reminds us of the spontaneous, joyful and voluntary nature of children’s play. It also offers some guidelines for parents. Whether a parent is directly involved in a child’s play, a loving, observing presence, or a collaborative guide, play and its benefits expand in a supportive social context.

 Object Play

 Anyone with a child remembers the early months of watching a little one spin a toy over and over, line up the trucks or build and knock down the tower over and over again. This is learning at its best with most parents commenting, joining or even watching at a distance.

While I did not know the term, the concept of “ serve and return” is something that has delighted most of us as parents. It is when the little one builds the tower until it falls and we say “ Down” making the little one build it again with the anticipation of our response. This is collaboration, problem solving and communication.

Fast-forward ahead a few years to Legos and we are saying “ Wow” as the little one delights in building a tower structure beyond our capacity. This is affirmation, problem solving and communication.

Physical, Outdoor and Rough and Tumble Play

From pulling themselves up and down in the crib to competing on the playground, physical activity is key to emotional, social, cognitive functioning. If there is no recess in school, it is worth parents or caregivers building in free time outdoors in the backyard, local playground or any safe place to play- on a regular basis.

This is a culture of organized sports so it is not unusual to see tiny little soccer players with no real understanding of the game just running wherever the pack is headed. That freedom to run with the pack on the big field may be the most valuable aspect of the activity!

No one needs to explain to any parent “ rough and tumble “ play which usually goes into high gear when a parent has just received an urgent phone call, or is taking too long to get dinner ready.

According to Dr. Yogman, we see the evidence of this in play in the animal kingdom when puppies or tiger cubs play without hurting each other. For kids rough and tumble offers the same learning experience of taking risks in a safe environment. Actually it fosters emotional intelligence, as there is competition with the ability to balance empathy that prevents harm of others.

Parent guidance can foster discernment and avert disaster.

  • “ You can jump like that on the couch; but not until we pull this table with the sharp edges away.”
  • “ You can jump with him but not on his head.”

The presence and involvement of the parent can be a wonderful addition.

  • “ Wow we are on a rocky boat!”
  • “ Kids, I want to keep jumping and falling in this bouncy castle – but at this point I am sea sick.”

 Social or Pretend Play – Alone or with Others

If you have observed children playing “ dress-up” you know the magic of pretend, make believe and imaginary play.

When playing with other children, it fosters communication, empathy, rule setting, sharing, and problem solving- “You be the baby and I will be the Mommy.” “ Ok then we will both be the Daddy and the doll will be the baby.”

When playing with adults, pretend play allows a reversal and exploration of roles and often an attempt at emotional mastery of some aspect of the child’s life.

“ I will be the teacher-pretend you are in my class and you don’t know what to do.”

“ I will be the princess -pretend you come to the castle.”

Children’s Self-Directed or Adult Guided Play

Self-directed play invites the child to follow their own interests and preferences in a room full of toys, with arts and crafts supplies, on a playground, etc.

Self-directed play encourages exploration and identifying favorites things and interests.

  • Yogman cites one study, which reported that when playing with objects with minimal adult direction, preschool children named an average of 3 times as many nonstandard uses for an object compared with children given specific instruction.
  • Self-directed play is often a respite for a child from the demands of the outside world. It is interesting to see how often primary school children come home eager to play alone for a while with their action heroes, minions, dolls or collectibles- almost as if they need a dose of self-directed imagination to balance out the day.

Adult guided play still leaves the child in charge but adds the presence of a guiding adult. “Should we let the balls go down this water shoot?”

Adult guided play often allows for scaffolding– the opportunity for the parent or caring adult to expand the skills of a child in an informal way at a faster pace than the child would be able to achieve alone.

I observed an example of scaffolding this summer with a 5-year-old little girl doing puzzles with her grandfather. She was attempting to put together a unicorn puzzle that glowed in the dark. It was somewhat advanced for her so she was having some difficulty. Her grandfather suggested they look for pieces that had pink and white at the edges to match the bow and the unicorn. As they proceeded with his guidance she started fitting the pieces together. The next day she poured all the pieces out of the box and decided to do the puzzle on her own with Grandpa next to her – and she did. The Unicorn Glowed!!

 Play and Stress Regulation

In addition to all of its benefits, central to the importance of playing with your child is stress reduction. The reciprocal exchange of parent or caregiver with a child serves to buffer adversity and regulate stress. The gift of someone with whom to play, laugh, and pretend is an emotional asset that people carry with them for a lifetime.

Enjoy playing with your children…

.A valuable resource for enhancing and practicing executive function skills through play with children from infancy to adolescence is provided by Center for the Developing Child, Harvard University

You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation. – Plato