For months, children have been sequestered at home with distance learning from both school and church. Closed parks and playgrounds disappointed children and parents alike. Fear of contracting COVID-19 has disrupted life as we know if for months, and when we return to gathering as groups, our sense of what was normal will no longer be “normal.”
One common yet amazing way we can help children regain their bearings is through free play. Play by definition involves freedom: freedom to run, freedom to choose, freedom to imagine a world without COVID-19. What makes play such a powerful force and why is it so important to integrate play into the lives of children?
Play is defined by its qualities of being child-initiated and child-directed. The goal of play is always process over product. There can be a project to complete or game to win but the fun involved in getting there defines play. Play involves an understood set of rules that are created by children that are adaptable to changes in the situation at hand. Play always involves imagination, which is foundational to creativity and the adult version of imagination called innovation.
Ask yourself, “When was the last time I played without thought of my to-do list or my other personal obligations? What did play do for my heart and soul?” Children are born with an innate desire to play. Play is how they work and learn how to navigate life. Active play is crucial to healthy cognitive, physical, social and emotional development. Lack of free play has been linked to an inability to focus, stay on task or handle strong emotion.
What does play do for a child? Play builds competencies and confidence. It teaches self-advocacy and helps children overcome narcissism and teaches children how to extend grace and compassion to others. It teaches empathy and “otherness” as well as how to function in a group through cooperation and conflict management. Play involves risk-taking, builds courage and problem solving skills. It creates resilience, the ability to get up after a fall, which is so necessary to the mental health of teens and adults. Play is a great stress reliever and reset button.
Active play is crucial to healthy cognitive, physical, social and emotional development.
It has been said that play in the life of a child is practice for life as an adult. Imaginative play is an imitation of adult responsibilities and is a way for children to develop the skills necessary to participate in the culture. It is a place where it is OK to learn to fail without real world consequences. Freedom to fail means there is also freedom to experiment and try an alternative solution.
How can we as adults open up the world of play to children?
We can give permission to play.
In today’s culture the drive to succeed has replaced many opportunities for play. Classes, organized sports and other adult-driven enrichment has minimized time for the joy of free play. Build time for and encourage children to truly play without adult instruction, direction or intervention.
We can give an invitation to play.
Are we creating environments that allow for imaginative and creative play? Blocks, play dough, sand and swings, kick balls and open fields are the stuff of play. Consider the toys that your children own. Do they foster active play and imagination or are they passive forms of entertainment that only fill time?
We can engage in play with our child.
Play their games by their rules. Unleash your imagination as you engage in play and conversation. Build a fort, mold play dough, throw water balloons or ride bikes. Dress dolls, build roads or play hide and seek. Become a child-like adult who models the desired behaviors you want your child to emulate.
Do you make time for play? Take a hard look at your calendar. Are there substantial blocks of time for free play in the life of your child? What have you learned through the gift of free time that COVID-19 may have given your family? What are some important practices you desire to keep? What has been fun for you and your family? Is fun scheduled into your life? Find joy, fun and blessing with your children through the gift of play.