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Make Time to Play Today—It Does More Than You Think

by Ashley Green, Program Manager

Backyard baseball. Pillow forts and cardboard spaceships. Play can be anything you want it to be and looks a little different for everyone. Fun and games aside, play serves an essential part of physical, cognitive and social-emotional development.

While the idea of ditching the busy schedule and letting impulsiveness or exploration take the reins for an afternoon can be unsettling, it’s important to your child’s developing imagination and well-being to participate in regular unstructured playtime. Read below about some of the benefits of unstructured play for both children and adults, and explore ways to begin facilitating at home or at school!

Play builds social skills.

Playing with others helps build relationships through the interaction. We learn respect, trust, and tolerance and how to navigate group dynamics—including collaboration, compromise, and conflict resolution. It helps us develop a sense of belonging and boost confidence to take risks and try new things, explore our creativity, and problem solve. Check out these ways to facilitate play in a group setting:

  • Explore new worlds through dramatic play! Maybe there’s a castle made of winding hallways with treasure hidden in its walls – work together to sneak past the sleepy giant and climb the trellis of cushions. Encourage children to create their own characters and allow them to explore these roles, however they may imagine them.
  • Put your heads together and your teamwork to the test with a balancing game of ants on a log.

Play fosters creativity and helps us refocus.

The imagination is a powerful thing. It allows us to experience things in different ways and understand different perspectives. It encourages focus and the ability to think outside of the box when exploring associated possibilities – skills that directly translate into adulthood. Utilize your creativity to support transitions from one activity (or place) to the next with some of these ideas.

  • Play “Secret Spies” and make it to your destination as sneakily as you can! Windows? Crouch down and sneak by. Doors? Tiptoe! Tree along your path? Hide behind it and assess what might be up a head! Get creative and encourage children to come up with their own prompts and work together to sneak by.
  • Use your imagination and practice deep breathing. Catch a “bubble” in your mouth and only breathe through your nose – be careful not to pop it! Imagine you have to blow out the candles on a giant birthday cake – take a deep breath in through your nose and blow out through your mouth.

Play gets us moving.

  • Enjoy the outdoors and get your heart pumping with a Backyard Fitness Circuit Course. Set up obstacles or include your favorite games (ex. Hopscotch race, flashlight tag, hula hoop contest, etc.). Tie in dramatic play for fun challenges and added creativity.
  • See if there’s a StoryWalk in your town! In recent years, many towns have been installing StoryWalks in parks, playgrounds, and other public spaces. StoryWalks combine being outside and exploring nature with reading and with physical activity – a perfect combination!
    • No StoryWalk in your community? No problem. Take one of your child’s favorite stories and encourage them to use their imagination to act out the story. Or look into bringing a StoryWalk to your town by checking out these tips!

Try some of these activities out with your child and explore ways to model play throughout the day. Children often act out the roles of adulthood from their observations of parents, teachers, caregivers, and more when they play. From playing house to teacher, astronaut to musician—they draw on real-life examples they have observed. And while we enjoy seeing their creativity at work, we forget that adults need play, too.

Just like with kids, playing gives adults a chance to be active and gives your mental health a boost! Think of the last time you played something: charades, board games, mini-golf. More than likely, you found yourself laughing and experienced a sense of camaraderie with your peers. Similar to exercise, your body releases endorphins that reduce stress and help you relax. Challenge yourself to take 15 minutes to play with a friend or colleague, and track the differences in how you feel.

Play is obviously crucial to well-being, but due to jam-packed schedules, academic pressures, and budgetary constraints, it’s often on the chopping block. Make sure your children or students—and you—are getting the time to play each day.

P.S. Short on creativity? Need a prompt? Check out Playworks’ game library.