The Value of Play: Proven to Feed Success and Well-Being at Every Age
Updated: Mar 19
"A person’s maturity consists in having found again the seriousness one had as a child, at play." -- Friedrich Nietzsche
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about play. Probably because it’s summer.
Some people seem to have play down to a science. Lots of practice makes them experts. Others are programmed for productivity, with many things to be done and goals to accomplish. For them, play rarely makes the list.
It’s not often someone does both well.
It doesn’t help that life is busy. Over-packed schedules for both adults and kids leave less time for everything, especially play. And for the older set, it’s hard to justify time for pleasure when the list of responsibilities is long and time is short.
But research shows that it is precisely that reason that we must schedule play into our hectic days and weeks, during the summer months and beyond.
The value of play for the healthy development of children has long been established.
Study after study confirms the immense benefits delivered by unstructured childhood playtime.
In the report, The Power of Play, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) describes play as the “singular opportunity to promote the social-emotional, cognitive, language, and self-regulation skills … enhanc(ing) brain structure and function and promotes executive function [allowing] us to pursue goals and ignore distractions.” I have a kid. Yes, please.
Play builds the brains of children and prepares them for the future. It helps them be better adjusted, better able to handle anxiety and stress, and it supports healthy social and emotional development. Research has also shown that play promotes resilience, self-esteem and helps kids meet challenges later in life.
Value of Unscheduled, Unstructured Time
Play is focused on the recreation itself and is not about achieving a goal. It’s not structured or about rules. It demands creative, imaginative thinking. It’s about exploration and curiosity.
Play lives only in the moment. That’s why children are so damned good at it. That’s where they live too: just right here, right now.
Much of our own childhoods were spent brilliantly unstructured, gloriously unsupervised, providing us a blank slate for brain development and creativity to flourish. That sort of playtime has mostly gone extinct.
Children today spend less kid-organized free-time than any other generation. This critical part of childhood has been sacrificed for structured resume-building extra-curricular activities, which now account for 47% of children’s time, leaving little opportunity for kids to play freely with others outside of parents’ watchful eyes.
Our own childhood play was absolutely helped in no small part, by the lack of the Internet and today’s ubiquitous electronic devices demanding constant attention everywhere we go, from the dinner table to the bathroom.
All That Screen-Time is Not Play
Increasingly, the days of both kids and adults are being sucked up staring at screens – turning people into passive receivers of someone or something else’s ideas and agenda isn’t exercising the brain or body.
Let’s be clear: mindlessly zoning out in front of screens big or small is not play.
Children these days, ages 8 to 12 spend six hours a day and teens average nine hours a day absorbed in electronic devices. This becomes a problem when it usurps other important pursuits like physical activity, experiencing the natural world and actual real-world interactions with live people.
What develops is a dependence on something outside of themselves to constantly keep them stimulated and entertained. These substitutes for play are leading to an atrophy of imagination and creativity as the developing brain is not being given the time and space to do its own thing.
When separated from their electronic soul mates, I now watch as kids immediately complain of boredom in tones demanding that someone quickly distract and delight them, unable to do that for themselves. Back in the day, any declaration of boredom was an invitation for chores. Oh, you need something to do? Cleaning out the garage is something to do.
All we needed was another kid or two and to be left alone.
A Generation Under House-Arrest
But being plugged in so much just adds to a growing list of reasons why kids today play outside half as much as their parents did. According to one report, the ability for children to range freely around their homes and hoods has decreased by 90% since the 1970’s.
Since that time, global rates of mental health disorders and obesity in kids has sharply increased. In 2005, Dr. Richard Louv coined the term ‘nature deficit disorder’ based on his research of the significant physical and psychological damage to children when separated from outdoor play and access to natural settings.
Growing parental fears about the dangers of the environment: from kidnapping risk to drug or crime exposure; from traffic hazards to the possibility of injury or exposure to peanuts, has created an over-protected, risk-averse generation with less access to play, never mind the real world. Despite the negative news, most crime data fail to support the idea that children are at more risk today than in the past.
How bad is it? A 2012 Seattle Children’s Research Institute study found that kids from age 10-16 spent less than 13 minutes on healthy outdoor activity each day while spending over ten hours nearly motionless.
Other research found that 20% of kids didn’t play outdoors at all on a typical day and a full 74% of children played outside for less than an hour a day, equating to less time outdoors then prisoners. And that may well be fitting based on where lack of play for children can lead.
Play Deprivation Can Be Deadly
All this over-scheduling, excessive screen-time, and parental fears over safety keep kids from playing, especially outdoors. If you think the parents are fearful, so too are experts about where all of this is leading.
Bubble-wrapping the next generation does not guarantee their safety. But what the coddling does ensure is a fear of the world and a decline in resourcefulness, self-control and the independence necessary to be successful later on.
A 2011 article in the American Journal of Play outlined how not playing can stunt emotional development and lead to attention and self-control issues as well as increase levels of depression and anxiety. And that’s if we’re lucky.
Dr. Stuart Brown M.D. is the founder of the National Institute for Play. Through his research, Brown has seen how childhood play has served not only the achievements of successful individuals, but also how significant play deprivation predicted criminal behavior and was a common theme among mass murderers. Yup.
The evidence is clear: childhood play is critical for a healthy adulthood. So serious is the decline that there’s an entire movement afoot dedicated to bringing back unstructured childhood playtime.
Why Should Kids Have All the Fun?
But then, just when all our early playfulness begins to pay off as we mature, so many of us stop.
Somewhere along the way, what with work, caring for children, mortgage payments and aging parents, many of us stopped playing. We had goals to accomplish. Things became grouped into something that was either helping us achieve or was a distraction. Play turned into a four-letter word. Adulthood was time to get serious. And we did – probably too much, it turns out.
The value of play doesn’t end at age 18. The same activities that lead to mental and physical health in our kids does in fact continue to benefit us into adulthood.
For grown folks, play has shown to increase productivity, improve brain function, enhance learning and help with creative problem-solving. Like children, we too connect through play and it has shown to improve and sustain our relationships.
But the benefits continue. When we play for the sake of play, we reduce stress levels and boost our general health and well-being. Play leads to higher happiness levels and is key in remaining positive and optimistic during challenging life events. The cherry on top: continuing to play helps keep us young.
"Those who play rarely become brittle in the face of stress or lose the healing capacity for humor." -- Dr. Stuart Brown
To add the proven cure-all of play back into our busy lives, we can start by acknowledging its value. Let’s redefine how we view play and understand just how important it is for our well-being. Then give yourself permission. It’s not only OK to play, it’s life-giving and necessary.
Only then can we prioritize it by taking time completely outside of to do lists, work and responsibilities. Set regular time aside. Yep, get that schedule out and write: p-l-a-y.
Go on an adventure. Have a water fight. Read aloud. Sing aloud like you can.
Kids can be helpful here. They show us how to live in the moment. So, go grab a kid - or get rid of one - it’s summer, go play.
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