By Shelley Nortje
Day to day life can get really busy. Everyone I speak to recently seems to make a comment about feeling tired and depleted. To-do lists can often become too long, and spontaneous fun is not prioritised. However, play shouldn’t be an added extra at the end of the day “if there’s time”. Play is a vital experience in the growth and development of babies, children, and even adults.
Play helps the brain develop: From birth to age 18 months, connections in the brain are created at a rate of one million per second! Research shows that babies’ brains grow and develop through play activities. At first, a baby’s play may not involve a toy per se, and instead the mother’s face and the baby’s own body and sounds become a way to learn and interact with the world. Later on play such as running and skipping helps build children’s gross motor skills, while drawing and cutting helps shape their fine motor abilities.
Playing is your child’s way of communicating: Children’s verbal capacities are not as well-developed as adults. Instead, play is their way of communicating their thoughts and their emotions, such as anger and fear. Being responsive and sensitive to your child’s play helps you as a parent to understand more about what your child is feeling and experiencing. Psychologists use play with children in a therapeutic way in order to help little ones make sense of big, difficult feelings and situations.
Imaginative play leads to creativity: Children’s wonderful ability to create a fortress out of some blankets and a three course meal out of some play dough should be nurtured. Imaginative play helps build a child’s frontal lobes that are so important for flexible and creative problem-solving, planning, decision-making, emotional regulation and self-control.
Free play versus team play: Many kids belong to groups such as sports teams or church youth groups or choirs. Play in a group helps children learn all about sharing, turn-taking and getting on with others who may be similar or different to them. Free play on the other hand is just as important to let a child also develop the capacity to entertain themselves, and find out more about their own identity; their likes and dislikes, hopes and goals.
Be thoughtful about the kinds of toys you buy: Advertisements of the latest video game, DVD or talking doll can be very alluring for children. It is important however to be thoughtful when buying your child a new toy. Allowing children the space to be creative with what is available – using leftover cardboard boxes, bottle tops and string – helps develop their creative talents in an affordable way. Current research is showing trends that children who are exposed to excessive ‘screen time’ (computers, cell phones, television, video games etc.) have poorer social interaction skills and aren’t able to develop certain areas of their growing brain.
Playing with your child is a special gift: Some parents may believe that only children should play. Family play time is equally important as children playing by themselves and with other children. Play time as a family will change depending on the age of the child. It could include pretend play, hide-and-seek, playing catch outside, dancing to a song on the radio or playing snakes-and-ladders. Family play helps establish secure attachments between family members and teaches children about competition, following rules and sharing in a fun way. It also helps create children who are self-confident and have a sense of “I can do this!” A child who is offered their parents undivided attention through play will learn that they are valued, and they in turn will learn how to value others and relationships as teens and adults.
A space to relax and reconnect: Children are faced with many pressures each day. Attending school, homework, chores, bullying, being in time for all their extra-murals, exams, and peer pressure are to name just a few. A child who is overwhelmed by these pressures may show symptoms such as tummy aches, a drop in grades, withdrawal from friends or changes in their sleeping and eating patterns. Unstructured play on the other hand offers children a space to just be themselves. Play is a source of happiness. It is important as parents to offer our children a healthy balance between work and play.
Practicing play as a parent: Take a moment to remember how you as a child would play. What image pops into your mind? A happy, messy, connected experience? There seems to be an unwritten rule that becoming an adult means no time for play. However, play is just as important for adults as children. The form of play may differ, but it is just as vital for developing healthy relationships and reducing stress. Some examples of play may include art, reading novels, sporting activities or dancing and listening to music.
So I would like to encourage everyone, young and old, to add play to your day!
As author and psychiatrist Stuart Brown says “Play is the purest expression of love.”