“All work and no play make Jack a very dull boy”

Two Girls Playing With Soap BubblesWhat is the role of play in children’s lives and why would we want to make room for it? Play is often seen as free time that is spent without care and work. They formed some of my happiest memories as a child and I can still see my swing-set that took me on journeys beyond my backyard. Moments spent in play are a luxury and are only present when the relational needs of the child are being met. These times are critical for brain development as it is where children form neural networks that are involved in problem solving and creativity. Children who lack environments that foster play actually have brains that are 20 to 30% less developed in capacity. Play is not empty time; it is how children build the brains that are required for work and learning.

All play is not created equal; it’s not about the toys, the stimulation, and the entertainment. The type of play that their brains need is where the energy is coming from within the child to construct, build, create, and so on. This type of play is called emergent play and in this state you see curiosity, imagination, and sense of discovery in full action. My husband will often groan in coming home from work to find the bathroom transformed into a swimming pool for dolls, craft sparkles that defy capture from one end of the house to the other, and an overall mess created from hours of play. I remind him that it is not a mess but the imaginings of the teacher, designer, and scientist that lurks within them. It is hard to convey the look that I get in return but the force of their play continues to outmatch his need to walk on a clean floor.

Emergent play does not typically unfold from activities with a lot of structure and rules, as this tends to confine and take the lead in terms of play. This is not to suggest that we stop these activities but it does mean that we need to stay cognizant that structured play activities are not equal to free play. In grade one my daughter informed her gym teacher that she wasn’t interested in joining his running club because she simply had enough activities and just wanted to play. I am sure her response provided him with an all-new meaning to getting out of gym class.

Children who have a lot of stimulation from the TV or computer may report being bored away from these sources because their emergent play and energy has been stifled, subdued, or overpowered. For these golden play times to emerge we need to do our part and ensure their relational needs are taken care of, provide the necessary materials, and a space free of stimulation. When these conditions are met, we can sit back and watch their imaginings take hold. We can be rest assured that it is not just child’s play; it is creating the brains that will solve the problems of tomorrow.

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