This month’s Guest Blog is a feature on the importance of play by Esther Groen, B.A. Psych.
Why is play important?
The family environment is the primary source of experience and contact for children, and one of the most important experiences a child can have in this environment is playing.
Learning in the first five years of a child’s life has critical implications for a variety of future successes in school, at work, and in the community – and the best way that children learn is through playing with their favorite people. Part of playing with children is paying attention to them and responding to their cues and signals for what they need from you. A child who is raised with responsive caregivers is more likely to develop secure attachments which are a major indicator for successes throughout their lives. Children who experience secure attachments are described as less disruptive, less aggressive, more mature, more empathetic, have better social support , higher self-esteem… and the list just goes on!
Now that you know that playing is serious business, you might be wondering how to use this simple activity to make an impact on your children. We know some skill sets we should focus on to help our kids develop – math skills, sensory stimulation, language – but one of the most critically important thing you can do is to be a responsive and attentive parent. Being responsive means showing affection, warmth, and consistent, attentive responsiveness to a child’s signals and needs. Being a responsive parent makes a big impact and can be as simple as giving hugs, having a tucking-in bedtime routine, appreciating small actions, complimenting your child, and learning about things your child is interested in. It can be hard after a long day to truly listen to what your child is saying and engage them in what they find interesting, but this kind of attention shows a child how to interact positively and responsibly with others, as well as showing them that they are worth the time and attention they crave (and deserve).
An important part about playing with your child (and “playing with” doesn’t mean giving them your phone, your tablet, or your laptop) is not to take it too seriously, even when you know how important it is. Playing does not need to be structured and doesn’t need to last a long time – although it can if you have the time. Play can be built into every day routines – household chores become races and scavenger hunts, grocery shopping become matching and imagination games. Watch and observe how your child plays alone and with others. You can learn about their strengths and needs; do they struggle with taking turns? Make that a part of your play and model how it’s done. Keep in mind that sometimes a child isn’t interested in even the most amazing of your ideas, and that’s okay: let it go and let them lead you to what they want and need. You can support their play by providing appropriate materials, securing environments to encourage play, and introducing new resources and types of play when it’s developmentally appropriate.
After the first five years you might find it more difficult to engage your child, but there are lots of small and simple ways to maintain your connection. Create family rituals whenever you can, and include friends when possible; ask children to give opinions about rules and family structure; explain rules when you can and take their feedback seriously; make sure that you are saying more positive things than negative things every day; laugh together; and most importantly admit and apologize when you make a parenting mistake. We all make them, but owning up and taking responsibility is something you want to see in your kids, so you have to model it first.
Play encourages interaction and helps your kids to feel confident and strong by being a loving and supportive caregiver. Play doesn’t stop at 5 years old — it doesn’t even stop at 18. Keep playing, and keep paying attention to your children. It will make a world of difference.