Why “Child’s Play” Matters

Slow Down. Children at Play–Why “Child’s Play” Matters

We’ve all heard the old expression: such and such was “mere child’s play” compared to such and such. The implication is that child’s play is insignificant, inconsequential, easily dismissed. But child’s play is anything but insignificant. When children play, they become better communicators, better problem solvers, and better friends. Play also gives children the opportunity to explore self, to discover and define who they are. Not only that, play has been shown to improve memory, focus, and both brain growth and function, proving that play actually makes children smarter. This tells us that play serves a dual purpose: it is fun for children now (which helps to make happier and healthier children), and it is essential preparation for EVERYTHING that will matter later in life.

This all begs an important question. If play teaches children so much, provides so many cognitive and social-emotional benefits, is vital for children’s future success, AND creates happier and healthier kids, then why don’t we value it more? Why isn’t there more play in schools? And, more specifically, why are there so few opportunities for free, open-ended, and divergent play at school?

What is divergent play and what are its benefits?

A convergent problem has one solution; so, too, does convergent play (puzzles are one example). Convergent play tends to make children better at understanding and solving very specific types of problems with one solution. This can be very useful and fun (it can’t be overemphasized: fun, in and of itself, is indispensable), but it can also be limiting. But divergent play such as building with block and pretend play has numerous and often endless possibilities. It, therefore, gives children practice at divergent problem-solving. Studies have shown that children who receive more opportunities for divergent play are more likely to accept that there are multiple solutions to problems, are less likely to stop at one solution, are more creative in their approach to problem solving, and have an increased ability to generate multiple solutions to problems (Pepler and Ross 1981) (Wyver and Spence 1999). In other words, divergent play makes children better and deeper thinkers.

A specific type of divergent play, imaginative play, yields additional benefits. Alison Gopnik is a professor of psychology and philosophy at U.C. Berkeley. Her recent research shows that children who engage in imaginary play are better at self-regulating their emotions and impulses—they are better at collaborating and cooperating with others and better at understanding and controlling their own emotions. Her research also shows that imaginative play improves children’s abilities to imagine potential events, scenarios, and problems and to think through their possible solutions or outcomes (Walker and Gopnik 2013; Buchsbaum et al 2012). Gopnik says, “The gift of play is the way it teaches us how to deal with the unexpected.”

Why is play such an effective teacher?

Unstructured play is so effective in its ability to teach for a few reasons. First, it’s fun. Fun makes children feel good and makes them want to keep having it. Second, because the Play is self-selected and self-directed, it is meaningful, empowering, and engaging to children. Thirdly, in it’s purest form play has no practical aim. It doesn’t feel like work. Play allows children to choose something that interests them and develop an activity based around it, one that is carried out for the sake of pure enjoyment rather than to achieve a specific attainable goal. Play is such a fantastic teacher specifically because children don’t realize that they are learning.

According to Gopnik, “The irony is that over the long term, both children’s and adults’ play does lead to practical benefits. But it does this precisely because the people who play, whether they are children or adults, aren’t aiming at those practical benefits. The fundamental paradox of play is that in order to be able to reach a variety of new goals in the long run, you have to actively turn away from goal seeking in the short run.”

The Challenge

Intellectually, we all know that play is good for children. How does that play out, though, when it comes time to transfer play into pedagogy? The challenge for the parent and educator is to slow down, to step away from the sea of specialized knowledge and narrow content we may feel pressured to paddle through, and to resist the urge to overschedule and overprogram our children. This will create healthy space to introduce new experiences that will expand children’s opportunities to improve transferrable life skills. These opportunities may be found in collaborative efforts, project based learning, critical thinking and problem solving, creative endeavors, experimentation and healthy risk-taking, and of course lots and lots of play. The result: our children will be happier, healthier, smarter, and more successful in the future.

What conclusion can we draw from all of this? While there are many approaches to teaching and raising happy and successful children, they seem like child’s play compared to play.

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