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A Child Development Expert Explains the Benefits of Good Old-Fashioned Play
By Jessica Lahner, Ph.D.
The other day my two and a half-year old daughter and I were at a playdate when suddenly, her little three year-old friend started naming letters and their sounds. Even though I knew better, I felt myself panic. Is my child behind? Should I start drilling her with alphabet flash cards?
Sound familiar? As parents of young children, we are keenly aware of the pressure to ensure our little ones are “kindergarten ready” and have the academic skills required to excel in school. But experts fear that this focus on academics is squeezing out time children would otherwise spend playing. And playing, they argue, is the vehicle through which the most important learning in childhood takes place.
What is Play?
Play, by definition, is controlled by children. As adults, we struggle with this. Many of us, through our own school and work experiences, believe that for an activity to have value it must be controlled by adults and has to have a plan – a stated purpose.
Children who engage in play:
• Are playing because they want to – not because they were instructed to do so or to please an adult.
• Are the only ones who impose rules for the play.
• Are more focused on the process of play than the product.
Compare this list to an activity we’d traditionally view as meaningful. The characteristics that define play run contrary to what we’ve come to view as a productive exercise. As such, adults tend to view children’s play as providing little value beyond giving us some time to cook dinner uninterrupted.
The Value of Pretend Play
While all play has value, pretend – or make-believe – play offers additional benefits. When your child declares he’s a veterinarian on Mars caring for sick animals, he’s actually reaping cognitive and social benefits beyond children who aren’t given the opportunity to let their imaginations run wild.
Here are just a few of the advantages of pretend play:
• Advanced thinking skills. Studies show that kids who engage in more pretend play have advantages in: attention, memory, reasoning, language and creativity. (1) They also develop more advanced abstract thinking skills. Pretending requires that children use something in the place of another. When they play the role of astronaut, or use a box as a boat, they are using symbols to represent objects. This forms the foundation for abstract thinking which later allows them to do things like read maps and solve complex math problems.
• Greater social competence. Preschoolers who engage in more pretend play are rated by their teachers as having better people skills than preschoolers who do not. (2) Having meaningful relationships requires empathy. When kids role-play, they literally practice walking in someone else’s shoes, which builds their ability to understand someone else’s feelings and emotions. Playing different roles in their make-believe worlds creates the perfect venue for learning that others’ thoughts and experiences are different from theirs but just as important.
• Effective stress management. While pretending with other children, kids develop self-regulation skills including learning to follow social rules and dealing with frustration. When a group of preschoolers agree that they are going to play “scary princesses” (my daughter’s current favorite- true story), each player needs to conform to these rules, even if it’s not in line with her wishes in the moment.
This play also helps kids process their everyday experiences. Watch carefully, and you’ll probably discover that your child’s pretend scenarios parallel real life (with a dramatic flair of course!). Perhaps your daughter puts her dolls in time out, or her dinosaurs are leaving their mom and going to school. Kids often work out their own experiences through play as it provides a safe place to process both positive and tough emotions.
So next time you find yourself tempted to sign your children up for yet another structured activity, remember the benefits of good old-fashioned play. Pretending to be teachers, doctors or superheroes allows kids to practice and develop the skills they will need to be successful at school and in life.
1. Connolly, J. A., & Doyle, A. B. (1984). Relations of social fantasy play to social competence in preschoolers. Developmental Psychology, 20, 797-806.
2. Berk, L. E., Mann, T., & Ogan, A. (2006). Make-believe play: Wellspring for development of self-regulation. In D. Singer, K. Hirsh-Pasek, & R. Golinkoff (Eds.), Play = learning. New York: Oxford University Press
2. Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R. M., Berk, L. E., & Singer, D. G. (2009). A mandate for playful learning in preschool: Presenting the evidence. New York: Oxford University Press.
Jessica Lahner, Ph.D. serves as the Child Development Expert for Fox6 News Real Milwaukee and is on the faculty of the psychology program at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI. With a doctorate in counseling psychology, she looks at parenting and play from both a child development and mental health perspective. She has published peer-reviewed articles on development in the Journal of College Student Development, Journal of Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health, and the International Journal of Adult Development and Aging. When she’s not teaching or writing, you can find her and her husband elbow deep in finger paint or cheering on one of her four young children at the baseball or soccer fields.