I think we’ve established in this blog why play is so important for a healthy socio-emotional development in children and teens. However, we have yet to touch on what makes play so powerful. Why are we – child specialists – so fiercely advocate about it? About its benefits and outcomes.
Charles Schaefer considered the “father of play therapy”, wrote a spectacular book (one of many) titled “The Therapeutic Powers of Play”. In it, he writes about what makes play such a powerful therapeutic tool, especially when working with children and teens. Inspired by this gem, here are five ways that play can be extremely powerful – regardless if it’s being done in a play therapy, home, restaurant or even flight setting:
1. It’s cathartic
One of the best things about witnessing a child or teen play is how they feel afterward. And here I’m directly talking about free play – the one that sometimes doesn’t make much sense, but it’s inadvertently building a sense of accomplishment when they are finally done with their playing session.
When a child engages in that non-sensical, oftentimes erratic, confusing, and lose play – they do it because it’s cathartic. It unleashes an inner emotional energy (which might be anger, passion, happiness, frustration – or any other intense emotion), through a playful medium. Through that play, the child is unloading all this emotional energy in a way that’s productive and ends up leaving them feeling good about how they’ve played (and what they’ve played out).
2. It boosts self-esteem
There are a lot of children that go through the playing session perfectly fine all by themselves. This means that they might need minimum parental or therapeutic accompaniment. They easily go through the cathartic expression all on their own. However, there are other children which might need the verbal support from the adult watching their play.
Simple phrases like “you’re lego-building skills are getting better each day” or “you’re so creative when you’re playing”, can help build self-esteem in those children who need it the most. Most parents know if their children fall in this category. But, if you’re unsure, do it anyways. You can’t go wrong with verbal encouragement during your child’s play.
3. It helps to develop empathy
One of my favorite questions to ask kids and teens is “what would you do if…”. Now, this question can be asked with almost any prompt (we call them as if scenarios). But, when your child is playing and you’re noticing a particular relational theme in their play (brothers and sisters, parent and child, girlfriend and boyfriend, between friends, superhero and archnemesis, among others), you might want to squeeze this question in.
When we ask children these “as if” questions, we are presenting a wonderful opportunity to develop empathy. Remember that empathy is a skill, and as such needs to be practiced and reinforced as often as we can. When we do it through play, we are setting grounds for building this skill in a non-intrusive way. And we aren’t imposing it on our kids either.
4. It develops problem resolution skills
This is particularly helpful if a child is exploring a lot of aggressive themes in their play. What I mean when I say aggressive is in no way related to the child, but instead to the situations or narratives explored in their playing scenario. These aggressive themes are a natural part of the play development and are not to be confused with an aggressive play which I’ve covered more in this article.
Aggressive themes refer to battles, wars, fights, and other highly passionate emotions. If your child tends to play these themes out, they provide a wonderful opportunity to practice problem-solving skills. And, as we’ve mentioned before in this blog, these problem-solving skills in play will inherently become part of the child’s emotional toolkit when they have their own “battles” to face.
5. It’s fun!
One of the greatest pleasures in play is that it’s fun! In this era where everything is so stressful, where there seems to be a lot going in the world, and our children’s free time is often saturated with many activities (ironically, leaving them no actual free time) – we need to go back to basics and show our children how to have a good time. Away from distractions, from expectations, and just allowing them the opportunity to let their imagination roam free.
What is your favorite aspect of why play is so powerful? Leave a comment down below and let me know what you think.