On the importance of play
Dr Evan Kidd – The Australian National University
Play is a universal human activity. In all but the rarest of circumstances, children in every village, town, and city across the world engage in some form of play, whether it be pretending to be Batman in New York City or making dolls from natural materials in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. When a behaviour is common across cultures, it suggests that it might have an important function to our species. But to the casual observer play just seems to be something that kids do to pass the time. What benefits might play have?
It turns out that play is associated with many beneficial developmental outcomes, some of which are predictable and others not. For instance, most people would expect that physical play such as running and climbing leads to positive physical development, but not everyone realises that physical play is also crucial for brain development as well as being an excellent form of stress relief, leading to greater psychological health.
Play also appears to have social and cognitive benefits. Play is an excellent context in which children learn important social skills, such as peer interaction. When children have ‘play-dates’ they aren’t just having fun, they’re learning important socialising skills such as turn-taking in conversation, negotiation, and conflict resolution. No wonder play has been linked to important skills such as understanding other people’s thoughts and feelings, as well as children’s language development. Finally, play seems to be an important medium through which children can begin their long journey through formal education. Studies have shown that children who attend schools that have a play-based curriculum not only learn well, but enjoy learning too.
Play is a powerful activity, but because we mainly think of it as a childhood activity we often fail to realise how important it is. In fact, organisations in the Western world have become concerned about the decreasing lack of opportunities children have to play. The American Academy of Pediatrics links “increases in depression and anxiety to a lack of unstructured playtime”, and recommends that children spend at least 60 minutes each day in open-ended play. This tendency to devalue play is by no means a problem limited to Western industrialised countries: the UN is currently preparing a General Comment on Article 31 – the Convention on the Rights of the Child, in response to a 2010 report by the International Play Association, which reported pervasive cross-cultural misunderstandings of the importance of play. It seems that we are underestimating the importance of play to children’s development.
We need to start treating play more seriously (but not too seriously!), both in the lives of our own children and those in countries where children do not have the kinds of privileges available to us. We will all be better off for it.