Throughout history, play has gained an essential role in holistic childhood development. Plato and Aristotle were both play advocates, and they often reinforced the importance of play and benefits in childhood development. In fact, they were the firsts to discover play as a medium for identifying aptitudes and were the pioneers in discovering the link between child’s play and adult life. (Frost, 2009).
Educators, philosophers, and a variety of child specialists have all reached the same conclusion: play is the natural language of children.
In a fast-paced world, where technology is practically our children’s second language, play has lost its importance. I’m not talking about Minecraft or whatever other digital game is Top 1 on iTunes App Store right now. I’m talking about the spontaneous, collaborative, imaginative and free play that all these philosophers used to rave about.
The overexposure of technology in this digitalized era has not only proven to be detrimental to our children’s healthy brain development but also has negative effects on the parent-child relationship. When children (and teens) are overexposed to technology, they are misusing their time throughout the day – time that, through play, could help parents tune into the inner motivations, desires and anxieties a child goes through.
In play therapy, the specialist offers the playroom and its materials as a safe space where the child can explore. We work under the premise that once the basic trust towards the play therapist has been established, the child will feel comfortable enough to engage in free play – play that can give us, as specialists, cues into their inner world.
This makes me wonder: if children can display their inner workings in therapy and show us, through play, their rich inner life; they certainly must be able to do so at home as well. But, for this to happen, two key aspects must be in place: the opportunity to play and the parent’s openness to their child’s play.
As children get older, the level of parental direction and involvement changes. As babies, parents are responsible for playing and stimulating their young minds through a variety of age appropriate toys and materials. As toddlers and preschoolers, children are now more freely choosing their toys and directing play.
Parental response to this free play is key towards the building of a healthy parent-child relationship. Some ways that parents can healthy respond to free play are:
Answer with curiosity
Ask, rather than assume why the superhero wants to save the princess. You might be surprised with the range of answers from ¨because he wants to win her heart¨ or ¨because that’s what he’s supposed to do¨ – giving the parent, even more information about the child’s inner life.
Ask them to lead
Let the child choose the game and structure of playtime. Their narrative might not make sense to you and you might feel the urge to ¨clarify¨ details in their play, but by allowing your child to lead you’re cultivating that sense of independence and basic trust towards you – something that will come very hand when they reach adolescence.
The more open you are to understand their play, the more open your child will perceive you to be in regards to understanding him/her. Ask about what’s the characters’ backstory, what’s happening now and how will it end.
Free play does not mean that all toys and materials should be left on the floor after playtime ends. It’s healthy to set boundaries and ask your child to maintain order and structure after playtime is over.
When parents are capable of implementing these simple interactions into their playtime with children, their relationship grows stronger. And, consequently, as the relationship grows stronger, the child’s self-esteem has a positive impact, as well. I challenge you to reframe and redefine playtime. It’s definitely more than just child’s play.
- Frost, Joe L. A History of Children’s Play and Play Environments: Toward a Contemporary Child-saving Movement. New York: Routledge, 2010. Print.
- Kestly, Theresa A. The Interpersonal Neurobiology of Play: Brain-building Interventions for Emotional Well-being. New York: W.W. Norton, 2014. Print.
- Siegel, Daniel J. Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology: An Integrative Handbook of the Mind. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. Print.